Solar canopy: turns sunlight into electricity and art

Categories: Energy

Imaginative architect and designer Carlo Ratti has had some bonkers ideas over the past year, including an exercise-powered gym barge and a mile-high skyscraper park. But his latest project is on the sunnier side of feasibility. Literally.

The Sun&Shade is a light-reflecting canopy made of mirrors that automatically rotate to catch the sun’s rays and fling them at a photovoltaic panel, “located a safe distance away.” This generates clean electricity up top while cooling the shaded area beneath. A working prototype of the mirrored structure just debuted at Dubai’s Museum of the Future as part of its “Reimagining Climate Change.”

In the desert metropolis of Dubai, where the summer is one long heat wave, shade is precious as people seek refuge from the sun's scorching rays.

Enter Italian architect and designer Carlo Ratti's latest creation -- a shiny metal canopy that can be used to create micro climates in outdoor areas by controlling light and shade.

The roof of the canopy is made up of round mirrors, each with their own motor, which means they can be individually angled to reflect different amounts of sunlight and provide varied amounts of shade at different times.

They can also help generate power by reflecting the sun's rays towards a solar panel placed nearby.

"Think of this as a magic canopy you can put over outdoor spaces and terraces," says Ratti, also a professor at the MIT Senseable City Laboratory and co-chair of the World Economic Forum's Global Council on the Future of Cities and Urbanization.

The aim is to curb the heat that makes public areas in places like Dubai "unlivable" during the hottest times, Ratti says.

Like a field of sunflowers

The mirrors can track the sun throughout the day, much like a field of sunflowers longing for the sun's rays.

And Ratti says the canopy is also a new take on the 70s disco ball: the mirrors can be programmed to create beautiful patterns or spell out words in the canopy's shadow. "It's a new way to play with the sun," he says.

Partly inspired by traditional Arabian courtyards, which often feature cloth canopies, Ratti describes it as "an evolution of the traditional ways of controlling levels of light, commonly seen in Arabic architecture."

While the prototype is just six-by-six-meters in size, future models could cover whole courtyards and squares and allow owners to put their artistic stamp on the shade they create.

The technology does have its challenges: The prototype is sensitive to rain, although future versions will be waterproof, Ratti says. And it's more expensive than a traditional canopy, although Ratti expects prices to become more affordable in the future.

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