Why haven’t sunflowers been the efficiency model for solar research all along? If you have ever noticed — really noticed and watched — sunflowers, you know that their name, “sunflower” is not because they look like our solar orb, but because their growth is largely driven by what they can gather in from the received radiation. Sunflowers require very little water, can grow almost anywhere, prolifically reseed themselves for the next sunshine season, but the flowers! The flowers turn and follow the sun as they absorb energy from sun up to sun down! Don’t miss an opportunity to watch a large field or mass of sunflowers if you haven’t done so already; see how they are gathered together, watch as they worshipfully bow, lift and bow again as the lightgiver travels across the sky. How can one not smile?
The beauty and efficiency of nature is an amazing thing and I have only surprise at the length of time that it took for the MIT researchers and their German collaborators at RWTH Aachen University to realize the significance of the design. At this point in solar power plant design, they require large spaces (footprint) for all the collection mirrors. The mirrors all face and reflect the received solar radiation onto a tower which then converts that radiation into thermal energy. These researchers, as detailed in this article in Science Daily, have reduced the footprint by 20 percent while increasing the potential energy generation. The pattern inspired by the sunflower not only allows for a more compact layout of the mirrors (heliostats), but it minimizes the shading and blocking effect of neighboring mirrors.
Now, it seems to me, the challenge should be to perhaps use that same sunflower pattern in solar panels used for localized, home or other structures. Converting solar energy to thermal energy to electricity could probably be much more efficient if it bypassed the thermal step. Is there anyone out there doing this?