Solar Thermal Technology to Tap Auto Industry

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The solar auto industry brings to mind sleek, futuristic cars humming silently down smooth highways, gleaming in the midday sun. Yet that idyllic picture of a green auto industry may have some viable competition. One struggling solar startup thinks it has discovered a cost-effective way to bring grid-independent solar thermal power to millions, all while boosting a desperate auto industry.

Infinia, a rather unique startup, has found a way to mix 21st Century ideals with 19th Century technology. Their innovation begins with a Stirling engine, one that runs on hot and cold air. So long as one end of the engine remains hotter than the other, the Stirling, which alternately compresses and expands a quantity of air or gas, will keep on pumping. It is so adaptable to today’s needs because the heat source does not matter.

That’s where Infinia’s design comes in. They’ve mounted the Stirling at the center of a large concentrating solar collector —a large satellite dish in appearance. This solar-powered Stirling uses solar heat to keep the engine pumping out electricity during the day. It folds up like a flower at night to conserve heat and is backed up by a small bio-fuel generator.

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While Infinia has launched several failed Stirling-based technologies since 1985 when the company was formed, their latest innovation is their most positive. So far CEO J.D. Sitton has already garnered $70 million in funding and their first client: the U.S. Army.

Infinia’s solar generators claim 24% efficiency in converting solar energy into electricity, a number that stands reasonably higher than current averages for solar photovoltaic cells. A good deal of their potential also lies in off-the-grid possibilities in rural areas and for homeowners. Because Infinia could use current auto technology with little upgrade, they believe they can cut costs considerably and deliver cheap, clean power to their customers. Infinia’s goal is to produce 100,000 Infinia Solar Systems in 2010 at a price of $15,000 each.

For such goals to be reached, Infinia will need some large scale manufacturing capacity. Fortunately, their Stirling-based design is relatively simple and easy to mass produce, especially for the auto industry, which already has the technology and equipment to do the job.

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Auto suppliers are already equipped with more than enough capacity and skill to support Infinia’s needs. First of all, automobiles run on internal combustion engines, which are more complicated than Stirling engines, so adaptability for auto suppliers is not an issue. Not only that, many auto suppliers are currently in desperate need of work due to unprecedented decline in the American auto industry. According to CNN, the auto industry used less than 60% of its manufacturing capacity in 2008. That creates a potentially symbiotic and lucrative relationship for both Infinia and the auto industry

So far the dish collector and engine—the two most important pieces of the Infinia system—are currently being manufactured by Autoliv and Cosma, two prominent auto suppliers.

Posted on April 14 in Solar Thermal by .

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