New solar technology being tested now at The University of Texas Arlington Research Institute in Fort Worth could be a game-changer for hotels, hospitals and other buildings that need massive amounts of hot water.
Developed by Dallas startup Skyven Technologies, the technology uses solar panels to reflect the sun’s heat onto black receiver pipes with water flowing through them. The water can then be used for everything from showers to food preparation. Results from the initial tests could help prove that the technology is commercially viable.
Traditional solar panels absorb the sun’s rays to generate electricity, while Skyven’s panels reflect the energy. The water can get as hot as 500 degrees Fahrenheit for industrial applications. But it can also be dialed down to a more comfortable 110 degrees by speeding up the rate at which water flows through the system.
“It brings renewable energy to the heat domain,” said Arun Gupta, founder and CEO of Skyven. “Rather than using a gas flame, we’re using the sun’s flame.”
The 500-watt system at UTA’s research institute measures 10 square feet. It was just installed a few weeks ago and will remain there for a couple more months.
“We’re taking a bunch of measurements to make sure it’s really working as well as we say it’s working,” said Gupta, who was a researcher at Texas Instruments before starting Skyven.
Next, they’ll be installing a bigger prototype at Texas A&M University in College Station.
Aditya Das, an associate researcher at UT Arlington Research Institute, said the technology could revolutionize solar as a means to heat up water.
"Skyven is the first company to develop economical solar thermal panels that are both high efficiency and high temperature," Das said. "The project itself is very promising and can help ease the ever increasing demand for energy across the globe."
Skyven has six employees and was funded by a $150,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. The plan is to start commercial installations by the end of this year or in early 2017. The potential for hospitals and hotels could be huge because they have so many showers and sinks that need hot water. Gupta also envisions his technology being used in industrial applications, such as food processing plants.
The majority of the interest has come from California, which has strict environmental regulations, Gupta said. They have gotten some interest in North Texas, too, especially from the city of Dallas, he added.
The system even works when the sun doesn’t shine. At lower temperatures, Skyven can use water tanks to store the hot water. To reach higher temperatures, Gupta proposes using HEATCRETE, a special concrete that’s insulated to store heat for later use. A transfer fluid brings heat to the concrete when the sun is shining and carries heat away for use at night or when it’s cloudy.
The HEATCRETE system, developed by Norway's EnergyNest, basically works like a battery without all the cost of a lithium-ion system.
If needed, the system will be smart enough to seamlessly switch back to traditional fuel sources, but only as a backup.
In addition to the environmental benefits, Gupta said this system is more efficient than traditional photovoltaic cells, which would use electricity to heat water. It’s also a hedge against future volatility in the natural gas market.
“If the business can pay off or withstand the initial cost of the system, then they are basically eliminating their fuel costs,” Gupta said.
Low oil and gas prices could slow down wider adoption of this technology, Das noted.
"But, it is expected that these prices will go back up over time," he said.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the amount the National Science Foundation granted to Skyven. It was $150,000.