We're used to seeing big arrays of flat solar panels used to generate electricity, but a group of MIT researchers has discovered that a flat panel is not the most efficient way to capture the sun's energy.
By using lots of smaller panels set at different angles on a tower, they found they can generate from 2 to 20 times as much juice as a flat panel with the same footprint.
While a flat panel is usually positioned so that if faces the sun directly when it's at peak intensity, the tower with all of its angled panels does a much better job of catching those rays when the sun is low in the sky or on cloudy days. This also has the added advantage of providing a smoother flow of power over an extended period of time, with fewer peaks and troughs in the delivery rate.
The team used computer modeling to determine the ideal shape, and then tested several ideas on the roof of their MIT lab. Their goal was not just to make an efficient generator, but also something that could be shipped efficiently. To achieve this, the tower can be folded flat for shipping, then extended to full size one it reaches its final location.
Who knows, maybe one day soon our roofs will look like high-tech hedgehogs, all covered in little black tower things providing our power.