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Ultra-transparent aerogels are designed for better and cheaper solar collectors

We may hear a lot about photovoltaic panels, but solar collectors are also useful. These devices collect heat from the sun's rays and use them for things like home heating. Now, MIT researchers have announced the development of a new material that could make them cheaper and more efficient than ever before.
Currently, solar collectors typically include a series of reflectors that focus sunlight onto a central collection device. The device, in turn, contains transparent glass plates on top of the black heat-absorbing material, with a vacuum in the space between them. Such Settings can be expensive and complex, however, most of the accumulated heat may "escape" through the glass panels. With that in mind, a team at MIT has developed a silicone aerogel to replace the glass.

The material is transparent enough to let in a lot of sunlight, but it also has a high enough insulation value to keep the heat inside. When the MIT team tested the aerogel-containing collector on the roof in winter when the outdoor temperature was below 0 ℃, the heat-absorbing material inside kept the temperature at 200 ℃.

Aerogel is made of "abundant and cheap" ingredients and was originally a rapidly drying liquid. What is left is a material made mostly of air, with very little space between the silica particles due to the rapid drying process. This quality makes it more transparent than other insulating aerogels, with a transmittance of more than 95%, compared with about 70% previously developed aerogels.

Now researchers hope that once the technology is further developed, solar collectors combined with aerogel could be used to heat water in pipes and then pump it through a home heating system. Until then, however, the cost of the drying process needs to be reduced, and a specialized device called a critical point dryer is needed, which is not suitable for commercial-scale production of collectors.