SolOpticon front

 

SolOpticon beads close up top

 

SolOpticon Urban setting

 

SolOpticon High Angle

 

SolOpticon high angle long view

 

SolOpticon close up base

 

SolOpticon upwards view

 

SolOpticon Rural house setting, with internal lighting

 

SolOpticon Close view, bases

 

SolOpticon beads close

SolOpticon video

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Design

The SolOpticon is a ground based solar thermal collector intended to be installed adjacent to the building in combination with garden and groundworks features.

In the example configuration shown above the forms are intended to bring to mind the astronomical relationship between the human scale of the place and the Sun. There are references to optical instruments, telescopes, stone age observatories, and orbital paths. The concentrating reflector is made of mosaic tiles and is in classical proportional relationship the structure and the paved square. The forms embody the relationship of its material with its purpose as a solar collector. Providing a sculptural intervention that intends to engage the mind in the cosmic scale physical processes involved in solar energy collection.

Being upright, they receive light from all angles. This omni-directional absorption means that the collector’s orientation is not critical. They accept light that is reflected from all of the surroundings. Hence energy levels can be enhanced by using built features to reflect the light toward the desired collection zone, thus opening up many options for architectural and landscape design that enhance the efficacy of the collectors.

The SolOpticon can be installed in a number of ways. e.g. On top of walls, on plinths, or posts high above the ground, it may be integrated into apertures in walls, etc, etc. Light concentrating features may be walls, benches or paving. Solaesthetic Research and Design has invented a form of paving and wall facing, the Genius Foci, which is a system that uses a Fresnel mirror lensing principle to direct light in a way that can be tuned for the specific location and latitude.

Visual responsiveness is high on the design agenda. The SolOpticon is designed to be sympathetically integrated with many types of host building. For the collecting element we use transparent cylinders containing coloured glass spheres. They may be installed in combination with a host of materials stone, ceramic, wood, whichever suits the context best.

The columnar vertical component is significantly more sympathetic than diagonal planes to the aesthetics of buildings and gardens. When installed, they can be walked amongst and kept as part of the usable space of the grounds or garden.

The pole-like structures are filled with refractive glass spheres, which can also be used as lights with the inclusion of LED lamps.  They can be even placed within water features, with no detriment to their function as a solar-collector.

The transparency, reflective and refractive qualities of the SolOpticon, literally reflect the visual qualities of the buildings, garden and sky in their aesthetic behaviour. The coloured spheres can be any colour or a mixture of colours. En-masse they give a unique jewel-like visual quality.

History/Narrative

The underlying mechanics of the SolOpticon were initially developed as a high temperature version of the Solaesthetic Fluent Pillar, a fluid based, low temperature collector. It has since evolved into a distinct and versatile concept in it’s own right.

It was the first opportunity to apply the Solaesthetic Research and Design Method fully. What follows is an insight to the design process that the Ethos engenders.

The purpose of this design is to produce a free standing solar collector, which produces energy that contributes to of the heating and hot water needs of the house, and to produce it in a way that would be meaningful, responsive and in sympathy with the aesthetics of its surroundings.

The aesthetic engagement began with taking several perspectives about the devices role in its full environmental context. Then letting those thoughts direct the design process. e.g.
The question “What is it’s purpose from a geological perspective”, Leads to examining it’s place in the solar system and it’s material behaviour within the earth system. At the geophysical scale of reference, a solar collector is a device for directing and controlling a tiny portions of the enormous, abundant energy flows that wash across the earths surface. Like filling a thimble from a massive waterfall. This energy arrives unimpeded by the vacuum of space as photonic light. Directing this light is an optical process, reflective and refractive.
Collecting it is a process of absorption and transformation into a useable forms.

Looking from an Eco-historically perspective, a solar collectors place in the world is akin to a geological feature, in that it will be part of a complex of physico-chemical habitats. It will change and interact with it’s ecosystemic context. The longer it lasts, the more likely it is to be cause adaptation in the local flora and fauna. e.g. early on, Ants will begin to use the ground works for solar heating of their incubators; Bird will use the columns as vantage. algae will grow on the surfaces and attract creatures that prey on them. Perhaps even, a population of snails could be encouraged to behave as cleaners of smooth surfaces by providing them with shelter. They would become prey for other creatures etc.

Across the year, the collector will attenuate the localised heat energy making a tiny zone that is more slightly more temperate that it’s surrounding. Over time the complexity of life around it will grow. Choice of forms, orientation, architecture, materials and attention to the way in which it is integrated into the grounds will all have a bearing on this. So it is important to remain aware of opportunities to multiply ecological niches.

The impact of creating such a thing has ecologic consequences where the materials come from and in the place it is made. Generic international supply chains are inherently destructive, being defined by profitability, the sources can be from anywhere in the world, with no regard for their destructive effects or invasive qualities- materially or aesthetically. e,g.specifying cheap Chinese granite for a UK project means a vast mining operation in china and a polluting transport infrastructure, but it also means working with a material that is out of place both aesthetically and geo-chemically.

Ecologic consequences are not bad by definition as the narrative of conservation would have it. In an ecological system, life experiences localised disruptions as the opportune creations of new habit and resources. What is important in approaching a design is to make the disruption locally and at a scale that life is accustomed to meeting. The design could consciously be made so that it’s impact apes a localised geophysical event. Acknowledging that it catastrophically alters the locality, but it can do so while keeping the physical substrate in sympathy with the locality, while producing new ecological niches.

Architectural scale is the next thing to consider. How should a solar collector relate to the buildings that it services. Looking at this from an ecological perspective, it seems obvious that power generation should be done at the domestic, localised level. In an ecosystem the stability (sustainability) of the whole is related to the diversity in the system. More diversity gives more protection form destabilising effects. Relying on a remote centralised method of energy production leaves the buildings ‘organism’ at the mercy of failure of supply and/of failures of markets. Diversity is not simply a quantity of things, but also the degree of interrelatedness within a system. A solar collector should not merely act as a specialised functional component, but as a thing that serves several purposes at different levels of it’s existence. It’s main purpose at this scale of reference is to provide power in order to create comfortable temperatures for people who live and work. In designing and installation the question is ever present – What other roles can it play?

The Solaesthetic Design Ethos demands that great attention is given to the choice of materials materials. Durability is very important for our description of sustainability, the idea being that the solar collector should survive at least as long as the host buildings. Ask any archaeologist what are the most common materials that they find at all points of history that are left behind by human occupations and they will tell you. Stone, Bone, Ceramics, Glass and Charcoal. They are the most durable materials available to us. Durability, means non reactive and non corroding. The durable structures of a solar collector will play a role in an ecosystem that must be seen as infrastructural to the living organisms that will interact with them.

Many wonderfully engineered devices will end up discarded in landfill because they cannot be maintained or repaired. So it is necessary to conduct an analysis of the skills and capacities of the people who will be responsible for building the collectors and who will subsequently service and repair them. Generic building crafts and low tech engineering skills will be readily available in all parts of the world. The collectors must be designed so that there are no highly specialised processes or components involved. There should be no need for factory conditions in there assembly or maintenance. They should be able to be put together and repaired in the field with no special tools.

What is currently available to solve the problem?

Diagonally mounted panel designs, evacuated tubes, solar troughs.
These objects originate from design processes that only looked at the very narrow criteria of efficiency, either in energy or manufacturing terms. So they are efficient. They also were developed in an engineering and business culture where the possibility patent ownership (and hence monopoly) dictates what gets developed. The first criteria, efficiency’ is based on the idea of scarcity. The second is based on proprietorial motives and has nothing to do with functionality yet depends on a legal framework (UK Patent Act 1988 and similar) that specifically excludes aesthetic and decorative qualities, but promotes specialist manufacturing techniques and high tech solutions in order to obtain sufficient returns on investment.
Together they are powerfully narrowing factors that lead to devices that are highly specialised to meet the needs of these very tight criteria. So tight in fact, that these designs are developed in a contextual vacuum that ignores the aesthetic realities of architecture and the needs of people to live in attractive surroundings as well as ignoring simple, old or low tech solutions to the problem.

The resultant devices are thoroughly abstract and alienating machines developed in an atmosphere that trivialises aesthetic content in favour of mass manufacturability. These embodiments of ‘prior art’ should be discarded as they do not fulfil the human-centred sustainability criteria that Solaesthetic Research and Design is promoting. Though attention should be kept for some of the Physics principles that they depend upon.

These are examples of the kind of thought process that inform the development of Solaesthetic’s products. The design process considers several more such perspectives before and during the development phase. They provide the direction for the research and design process.

Technical

The SolOpticon is a versatile solar thermal generator, that offers an independent vertical silhouette, which overcomes many of the siting limitations associated with panels and extends solar system siting potential in general. The vertical form gives extra versatility for physical and visual integration. The collector uses and omnidirectional radiation pick-up method which means that it is possible to use landscape features such as hard groundworks and structures to act as light reflecting concentrators. For example, large sweeping parabolic structures, reflecting paving, walls and seating structure can all be used to increase the output of the collectors.

Each collector’s size can be altered in the vertical dimension giving further versatility. The output capacity and the visual character can be finely adjusted by altering the height and quantity of the collector elements.

The collector elements themselves comprise of two glass cylindrical containers, capped at one end, which are mounted concentrically and vertically at the open ends into a base via a sealing assembly. The base itself can be mounted in various ways onto plinths or poles. The chamber formed between the two glass components and the base is evacuated to form a partial vacuum. This configuration acts simultaneously as a ‘greenhouse’ IR retransmitted light reflector and insulation.

The internal chamber contains coloured glass balls. a variety of colours should be used to mitigate the losses induced by Kirchhoff’s Law effects. These glass spheres convert incoming radiation into heat which in turn heats the transfer medium. The inner glass chamber is fed by a pipes which carry a heat transfer medium; The heat is transferred to the building via highly insulated buried piping where it feeds a heat transfer system in a closed loop arrangement.

Circulation is achieved by convection and PV powered pumps. The transfer medium is optionally air or water based. The benefits of the air system is that the collectors can run at a higher temperature and require very little maintenance. The benefits of using a water based medium are greater efficiency at lower temperatures, plus the option of using the heat directly in the case of pool heating.

Performance is difficult to generalise with this design as it is intended to be optimised for each site and for each purpose, but to give an indication of the baseline capacity here are some statistics from the prototype tests:
In a non-optimised configuration with very basic non concentrating reflector in in tests in Gloucestershire, UK, Average useable output in summer is 1.4 KW/day/m2. 1m2 of exposed surface is equivalent to 2 x 1.2m tall SolOpticon collector units. ‘Useable’ output means the energy that is available at the heat exchanger in the system. The likely increases in output that can be achieved with optimised groundworks and well designed concentrating reflectors up to 300%. In design terms it is better to specify more tubes than to obsess about efficiency.

Tests showed that omnidirectional pick-up is particularly effective at ambient light conversion. The collectors have relatively high thermal mass, so response to input is attenuated. Furthermore, responsiveness can be adjusted by with the particular arrangement of the concentrating reflectors.

The upright orientation naturally protects the collectors from the temperature spiking in the middle of the day, they shadow themselves, but is more sensitive in the early and late parts of the day. this can be emphasised by the installation design. Reflectors may also be engineered to concentrate and/or diffuse light, so that they are more sensitive when the sun is lowest in the sky and less so when the sun is high, thus avoiding large temperature ranges that would stress the structures and shorten their lifespan. and providing a better balance of energy output for most uses.

The actual running temperatures can be specified for each system as it it is commissioned. For longevity, the lowest running temperature that will produce the required outputs is recommended.
Generally speaking this design is best suited for high thermal mass applications like domestic water, space heating, pool heating, under floor heating. It could, if desired, be configured to contribute to high temperature operation, and electricity production, though this is is not the optimal use for this system.

The main tubes are optionally variable in height between 1200 mm and 2000 mm. The outer glass diameter is 150 mm, and bases need to accommodate a bracket and seal set which has an OD minimum of 200mm.

Production and Installation

Laser cut components, seals and base are produced in the UK. Local ceramicists, stoneworkers, and or woodworkers should be used for groundworks and Plinths.
The glass parts are made by Schott in Germany, who are the supplier to all the UK companies who might make them and in case any produce the best components which the shortest lead time.
The system is designed in such a way as it can be assembled and installed by general building and plumbing trades with some instruction and oversight. The collector components themselves can be assembled on site or in any clean bench scenario using only an Allen key, a vacuum pump and some careful handling. The other components for installations – materials like stone, ceramics and wood should be sourced locally to the site.