Alcoa, the biggest aluminum maker in the U.S. by output (and theworld’s third-largest), is developing new of solar technology that willallow the company to become an industry player in two to three years,say executives.
Known for its history of innovations, which have helped change theautomotive, aerospace, electronics, building and construction,industrial and commercial transportation markets, Alcoa and the National Renewable EnergyLab (NREL) in Colorado are currently testing parabolic troughs withaluminum mirrors to generate solar power. Commercial solar systems typically use glass mirrors to reflectsunlight onto receivers that convert light into heat for producingelectricity.
The aluminum giant and NREL said last week they are measuring thealuminum mirrors’ ability to collect energy efficiently outdoors (theyare believed to be more durable and cost-effective than glass mirrors)and expect the results of tests in the second quarter of this year, when larger-scale rounds of testing will begin. The project is beingpartially funded by a $2.1 million U.S. government grant.
Parabolic troughs have been used in solar power production since theearly 1980s, but Alcoa hopes to successfully update the technology andestablish itself in the fast-growing and highly-competitive renewableenergy marketplace.
The news comes at a time when the aluminum manufacturer strugglesamid sliding aluminum prices and plummeting demand. And althoughaluminum production consumes large amounts of energy (it takes 15MWhours of power to produce one ton of aluminum) that generatessignificant greenhouse gases, the company is optimistic about itsprospects.
"We are proud to partner with the Department of Energy to develop anew, clean, reliable and affordable source of electricity," said ScottKerns, Vice President and General Manager of Alcoa TransportationProducts. "Alcoa has a long history of developing sustainable solutionsfor its customers, and aluminum—which can be infinitely recycled—is anatural fit for this green energy solution."
When it starts commercial production, Alcoa will likely face stiffcompetition from the likes of SkyFuel, an ambitious start-up which hasdeveloped a light-weight solar trough that uses a reflective filminstead of glass mirrors.
Even so, considering more utilities are supporting the development of large-scale Concentrating Solar Power (CSP) plants, Alcoa may destinedfor a brighter future.