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by Mike Zazaian October 25, 2006 - 12:44pm, 23 Comments

Infinia's rendering of several Solar Sterling Engines working in tandem

Infinia plans to release a solar panel alternative that uses a Stirling engine, a 19th century invention, to utilize solar energy with greater efficiency than photovoltaic cells.

Dubbed the Solar Stirling Engine, Infinia’s device uses a parabolic dish that harnesses solar energy more efficiently than conventional solar panels. The technology is based on the original Stirling engine that was developed in the 1800’s as an alternative to the steam-powered motors. Said Jim Clyde, Infinia’s vice president of sales and marketing:

This design means that we can make more electricity for about half the relative space as photovoltaics. It won’t be half the cost when we first get going, but it will be for significantly less capital cost.

Like the original Stirling engine, Infinia’s solar engine employs a closed-cylinder motor that generates energy when heated. The closed cylinder houses a gas, such as hydrogen, and a piston. When the chamber is heated, the gas expands and moves the piston, thereby producing energy. Whereas the original Sterling engine design required boiling water or other flame-powered heat sources for power, Infinia’s design powers the engine with heat harnessed from the sun.

With a Stirling engine, the thing that’s great about it is that it only requires a heat source, said Clyde. It doesn’t care what the heat source is.

In addition to providing a cheaper alternative to photovoltaic cells, the Infinia’s Solar Stirling Engines will also be more efficient at producing energy. The average photovoltaic cell, or solar panel as they’re more commonly known, converts light energy to electricity at about 12 to 15 percent efficiency. Infinia’s 3-kilowatt Sterling engine, on the other hand, will crank solar efficiency up to 24 percent by using the sun’s heat, rather than light, for energy production.

Stirling Energy Systems, another company that has developed Sterling Engine technology for solar use, is building large-scale farms with the devices in the California desert. Armed with more than 80 mirrors per farm, the systems will produce several megawatts of energy for two major California utility companies.

Infinia’s design will operate on a smaller, more personal scale, however. Their aim is to power entire residences with their 3-kilowatt Solar Stirling Engines. Infinia has already licensed its design for a combined electricity and home-heating unit to manufacturers in Japan, the Netherlands and Germany.

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