What does particle physics have to do with solar energy? It seems that the two disciplines are light years apart.
Obviously, there would be no solar energy without sunlight, which is, after all, a beam of elementary particles called photons. As they reach the semiconductor surface, they induce excitation of electrons. This phenomenon, known as the photovoltaic effect, raises high hopes among renewable energy enthusiasts. Solar photon energy, instead of electricity, may be used to generate heat, which is the job of solar thermal collectors.
Splendid. Meanwhile, particle physicists deal with issues that are far more significant for them than designing photocells and solar collectors. For instance, they try to answer the question how the universe works. Surprisingly enough, it turned out that one goes with the other. A year ago, the first of 282 solar collectors were installed on the roof of the Geneva International Airport, which handles millions of passengers per year. The panels, which would heat the terminal in winter and cool it in summer, have been active for a couple of weeks, providing the airport with an energy source independent from external heat suppliers. Also, the energy-consuming air conditioners have become redundant.
Solar collectors are not exactly a novelty, being manufactured for over half a century. Those in the Geneva airport, however, are unique. The new panels are based on a technology allowing to generate temperatures by several dozen degrees higher than the traditional collectors. While the latter are typically used for central and water heating in single households, the former, due to their fantastic efficiency, are able to heat entire offices, big warehouses and manufacturing plants. Better still, the heat capacity is so high that it may move energy generating turbines.
The creators of the next-gen collectors are the scientists… from the famous European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), located near Geneva, the same where the biggest particle accelerator in the world, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), operates. Experiments performed with the LHC led to the discovery of the Higgs boson, the so-far missing element of matter in the universe. The Large Hadron Collider was installed in a 27 km long circular tunnel. It was constructed at a depth of 50-170 m for the purpose of the previous accelerator, the Large Electron-Positron Collider (LEP). However, in order to accelerate particles in the tunnel, vacuum had to be maintained. CERN undertook advanced research on tools and methods to provide as perfect vacuum as possible. The research was conducted by Cristoforo Benvenuti, who also suggested that the vacuum pump created for the LEP and then the LHC be utilised to construct flat solar panels which would reach high efficiency thanks to the fact that, as was the case in the Geneva tunnel, all the air particles were sucked up. The greater vacuum, the lower the heat loss of the collector.
The technology was patented and a couple years ago, Benvenuti started looking for co-workers. He found one in Grupo Segura, a company from Spain that was licensed by CERN to use the patent. A solar collector manufacturing plant was built near Valencia. And so, particle physicists have indirectly contributed to the development of solar energy. This is not the sole case of employing CERN research in practice, the most notable example being, clearly, a website created in the late 1980s by the British physicist and programmer Tim Berners-Lee. His website, http://info.cern.ch/ was the first one to be published on the Internet (it still works). CERN is also the coordinator of the European ENVISION project, which serves as a platform for developing advanced techniques of cancer radiation therapy.