Fluid Mechanics Rescues Solar Panel Arrays

With all the virtual-world CFD simulations I see it's always a thrill to see real-world applications of a similar configuration. This happened recently with a visit to Manchester, New Hampshire where I saw a solar panel array on a renovated cotton mill.

Solar Panel Array on a Mill BuildingSolar Panel Array on a Mill BuildingManchester, New Hampshire

For the Caedium v3 release in October 2011 I performed a CFD simulation of the air flow around a solar array similar to the one I observed in Manchester.

Caedium CFD SimulationCaedium CFD SimulationRooftop solar panels on a building from SketchUp

The old cotton mills were built to last and have aged well, going through various incarnations of cotton spinning and weaving, retail, office, and residential use. To keep up with the changing times and demands the mills have used various power sources, starting out with on-site water wheels and steam engines, then steam turbines via coal and nuclear power stations, and most recently with natural gas-powered turbines. In all these modes of power generation the motion of a fluid (whether it be water, steam, or gas) is the primary means of generating power.

The latest power source on this Manchester mill is in the form of a solid-state photovoltaic panel array without a need for any fluid motion - bad news for fluid mechanics you'd think. However, there is still an important fluid motion to consider. The air flow over the solar panels generates lift and drag forces that if not accounted for could cause the panels to detach and result in serious damage or injury to anything in their path. Clearly then there's still plenty of scope for fluid mechanics expertise to help with the next generation of power generation.

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