A rendering of nanocomposite piezoelectric material. (Image via Greenoptimistic.com)
The word piezo (pee-ay-zo), derived from the Greek word piezein means press. For electromechanical engineers, the word evokes a process of connecting an advanced concoction of crystals that are housed in a paper-thin material to alternating electrical currents that cause the material to vibrate like the diaphragm in a speaker.
The process is known as the Piezoelectric Effect. For entrepreneurs, Maher Maymoun and Tala Nassraween, piezoelectricity is the technology behind their company Solar PiezoClean, and they think it is the means by which MENA’s ballooning solar industry can begin to press back against one of the biggest threats to solar panel efficiency in the region: dust.
Dusty residue covers solar panels after a desert storm (Image via onlinecleaningsolutions.com.au)
The dust problem
Imagine a solar field, spread out glistening in the desert. As an example, the 50MW Solar PV Power Plant in Jordan’s Ma’an Governorate, that gets energy from sunlight using 34 power arrays (or sections of solar panels) that contain roughly 20,000 photovoltaic panels each. Now imagine a dust storm the size of the one that hit the Arabian Peninsula in April, in which ominous dust clouds swept across Saudi Arabia, Oman, the UAE and east to India and Pakistan, in just seven days. Dust storms like that can cover entire solar-fields, and leave in their wake, residue on the panels that reduce each panel’s efficiency up to 30 percent. According to Maymoun, the founder and CEO of Solar PiezoClean, “over time, the reduced efficiency of solar panels caused by dust interfering with the absorption of sunlight, can equate to nearly a 40 percent loss in a project’s capital investment, not to mention the added losses in society due to power disruptions.”
Solar industry rising
Solar power projects are taking off in MENA and the potential for entrepreneurs to offer value added products and services could be higher than ever. In 2015, Jordan alone saw 12 ground-mounted solar projects awarded as a portion of the Hashemite Kingdom’s first round of tenders. Solar developments in Jordan are taking off and more rounds of tenders are expected in the future. Region wide, over 1,500MW in new solar capacity is expected in 2015, and over 40 new projects are expected to be over 10MW, compared to just three projects in 2013. Startups that can identify gaps in the solar energy value chain, like cheap and efficient cleaning systems for panels, like Solar PiezoClean, are poised to offer value in this growing industry.
A utility scale solar field gleans energy from the desert sun (Image via pvinsiderdrupalfs.s3.amazonaws.com)
How does it work?
Solar PiezoClean’s technology consists of the advanced piezo material, like a thin plastic sheet, and basic wiring to carry a current. When installed on top of a solar panel the piezo material creates a barrier between the panel and the dust. When the material is activated by the switch of a button it is vibrated by electrical current and the layer of dust is shaken off the panel onto the ground.
Finding the right material for the job was not easy. Maymoun said the challenge was “to identify a material that had minimal effect on the panel’s ability to absorb light, so it had to be transparent, and to find something physically flexible enough to fit over any panel no matter its shape or size.” Maymoun added that, “the material needed to be available at a feasible cost because it is a permanent installation”. Perhaps the most critical point is that the material is hydrophobic so that rain mixing with dust does not become mud on the panel.
Hydrophobic material makes water bead up and roll off a solar panel (Image via asme.org)
Maymoun thought of using piezo technology to keep solar panels clean while he was earning his master’s in energy engineering from the University of Chicago. He graduated in 2013, and has spent the last two years researching and developing Solar PiezoClean in partnership with a professor who specializes in piezo technology at Argonne National Laboratory, in Illinios, USA. Maymoun recognized the potential for the R&D and subsequent patents held by the professor, and so made a successful pitch to research commercial applications for the technology. For Maymoun, capitalizing on his education to satisfy an entrepreneurial hunger was only natural. He said: “I don’t like to do anything traditional, I was thinking about how I can stand out and really do something to benefit my region.”
Maymoun and Nassraween, brought Solar PiezoClean to Jordan, as part of the 2015 Queen Rania National Entrepreneurship Competition, to find MENA based resources and funding opportunities. The Solar PiezoClean team won first prize in the competition in early June. According to Maymoun, “if you can go to the country that is affected by the issue, the problems are more apparent to people and it can be easier to find the right investor who understands the company’s needs.”
After spending nearly three years with Argonne National Laboratory, researching the technology and the available solutions in the market, the two are ready for the next step. Maymoun said, “I have my connections, we have the team, we have the technology, the only thing missing right now is the funding available in the region. We need a first round of funding to do a pilot on actual panels operating in the region, and we need to do a control study with panels.” For Maymoun, securing a patent is also an important next move. He believes that, “in this region if you are not protecting your idea, you are lost.”
The solution: design, efficiency and cost
Today’s solutions for cleaning solar panels in MENA are low-tech and inefficient. Typically, a guy with a squeegee and a bucket of water is tasked with polishing each panel after a dust storm. “They all use water, and our technology does not consume any water during the cleaning process. Our markets are in the GCC, Jordan and in the US, in places like California where there are massive issues of water scarcity to consider. In KSA especially, you need to have the right technology to clean the panels with minimal use of manpower and natural resources.”
A worker cleaning dirty solar panels by hand (Image via emirates247.com)
The deployment of any new technology that supplants manual labor must be coupled with a discussion of whether or not the costs of replacing man with machine outweigh the benefits. In this case, cleaning solar panels with Piezoelectricity is efficient and waterless but it also eliminates the need to employ the guy with the squeegee. For entrepreneurs and solar project developers that are positioned to capitalize on the renewable energy boom in MENA, the creative destruction and subsequent job loss caused by advances in solar panel cleaning technology are minimal compared to the potential for economic and environmental gains. “We solve design issues, water issues, efficiency challenges, and reduce labor costs all with a sustainable solution.”
Solar PiezoClean ‘2.0’?
Solar PiezoClean has the possibility to harness the industrial internet. This means utilizing sensors and data to optimize solar panel usage in specific environments. “The idea is about having a mix of sensors in the piezo material and software in a server to harness data that can tell clients about how to use the piezo technology and when to use it in order to maximize their investment.” This means embedding sensors in the piezo material that are capable of measuring the solar panel’s outside conditions and to combine those measurements with weather pattern data to predict dust storms, and prevent losses before they occur.
Combining sensors, data and software analytics holds promise for Solar Piezo Clean (Image via ece.vt.edu)
Maymoun acknowledged that the prospect of utilizing the industrial internet is a distant glimmer on the horizon for the company’s current trajectory. However, he also mentioned that he has spoken with Arabia Weather about using weather pattern data, especially for dust storms to increase the value of Solar PiezoClean in MENA’s rising solar energy industry.