MOUNT VERNON — Developing green power drives cutting edge industries, particularly in research and development departments. Locally, engineers at Replex Plastics, founded in 1991 by Mark Schuetz, are exploring advancements in solar energy.
With their precision plastic thermoforming expertise, they hope to find a way to make solar energy more efficient and affordable. At Replex, that hope begins with how they form plastic.
There are two predominate methods of forming plastics: Injection molding or thermoforming. Replex utilizes thermoforming because it can be used for superior optical quality and its product line includes high-quality mirrors and domes. The advantage with plastic mirrors is that they can be formed into 3-D shapes, explained Project Engineer Dave Hollingshead. They’re also lightweight and will not shatter or break like glass.
The security mirrors that are produced, for example, would be very difficult and expensive to produce in glass. And the size of some of the mirrors would also make hanging them a strain and a liability. Replex also produces plastic domes like those used in playground equipment.
Replex engineers are taking their mirror technology and using it for two research and development projects financed by two Ohio Third Frontier Photavoltaics grants. The projects use mirrors to increase light intensity in order to increase the energy generated by solar panels.
The first project, referred to as Mirror Augmented Photovoltaics (MAPV), is being conducted in collaboration with Case Western Reserve University. Photovoltaic or PV systems convert the sun’s energy into electricity. PV systems include one or more solar panels and a controller or power converter. “The idea,” explained Hollingshead, “is that we put the plastic mirrors directly below the solar panels so that the mirrors direct the sun at the panels.”
The Ohio Department of Development’s Third Frontier program provided a grant for Replex’s second project identified as Low-Concentration, Low-Cost PV (LC2PV). Replex is working with The Ohio State University’s Wright Center for Photovoltaics Innovation and Commercialization.
The concept is similar to MAPV but they’re trying to increase the concentration of light. The company is making custom modules that redirect the light to solar panels. With the concentration of light, the system would require fewer cells thereby using less of the expensive solar cell materials.
It is possible that the mirrors will capture some of the diffused light of temperate climates like in Ohio. Solar energy depends heavily on placement of the panels and how much light they can access.
To test the projects, Replex developed a research lot next to the building. The study includes fixed mount solar panels that compare the electricity generated with and without mirrors. The fixed mount panels are similar to what is common in the industry today. Nearby is an incline single axis tracker.