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Boosting wind and solar power

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In a lab at Portland State University, graduate student Andrew Glick sets up 40 tiny models of solar panels in a 16-foot-long wind tunnel to simulate a large solar farm.

As air blows through the panels at various speeds and angles, it cools them and helps them produce more power.

The goal: To make solar energy more efficient and less costly — using only the wind.

The research is funded with a $1.2 million grant over four years from the U.S. Department of Energy in collaboration with University of Utah and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. It’s one of several projects in PSU’s Wind Energy and Turbulence Lab.

Prof. Raúl Bayoán Cal, a mechanical engineering professor, started the lab and built the wind tunnel when he came to Portland State in 2009. Since then, he has become a leader in studying wind power.

Other projects in his lab include working with Portland General Electric to increase the productivity of the Biglow Wind Farm and improving weather forecasting by studying forests with a grant from the National Science Foundation.

Using natural wind currents to improve solar power is a new twist to his research.

“It's a totally different way of thinking about the problem,” Cal says. “This has never been done before, and we are super proud of that.”

In the past, solar research has focused on making better and cheaper photovoltaic cells and panels. They are usually designed for optimum temperatures and conditions. But in the field, they can become much hotter and less efficient.

The lab is testing whether the solar farms can produce more power if they take better advantage of the wind as a natural cooling system. Cal and his partners have published an article about the research in the journal Nature.

“Our hope is that we can give some advice to the solar industry on the best way to lay out their farms,” Glick says. “There’s a lot of opportunity to increase the cooling in different panel arrangements.”

Sarah Smith started working in the lab two years ago as a transfer student from Arizona. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in June and joined the master’s program this fall.

Before coming to PSU, she spent two years as a flight attendant and became fascinated with how planes fly.

Learning about wind and fluid dynamics was like “finding out a secret,” she says.

“I knew I wanted to know how things work. It wasn’t until PSU that I learned that fluid mechanics and turbulence are integral parts of mechanical engineering that we can’t see. It’s so much more than gear design.”

She enjoys using that knowledge to make renewable energy sources more efficient.

“It would be great if we could figure out a perfect combination to get energy in sustainable ways, where were don't have to worry about it running out or the environmental impacts of using it,” she says. “I think it’s really important to keep looking for that.”

Cal agrees: “The more resources that we put in green or alternative means of generating energy, the less you’re depending on fossil fuels and contributing to climate change.”

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