Collaborative ResearchCollaborative Research

Active Flagship Research Projects


High-Performance Compact Solar Thermal Power and Cooling System

MIT Professors: Evelyn Wang, Gang Chen, and Nicholas Fang

Masdar Institute Professors: Tiejun (TJ) Zhang, Amal Al Ghaferi, Weidong Michael Xiao, and Peter Armstrong


This research will develop a compact high performance integrated solar thermal power and cooling system. Our concept takes advantage of a novel solar cavity design with a wavelength selective absorber via broadband and tunable IR metamaterials to capture the solar spectrum with minimal emissive losses; a highly efficient combined hydrocarbon based power and ejector cooling cycle; and heat pipes and enhanced surface to effectively transport and manage the thermal energy for power and cooling. We leverage our combined expertise in thermal fluid science, material science, applied physics, optics and power electronics to realize this high performance system, which promises significant breakthroughs in solar thermal energy conversion technologies. We anticipate that this work will lead to the establishment of a unique solar thermal research center supported by industries within the UAE and internationally, and taking advantage of existing MI solar infrastructure, to address specific challenges in desert regions. 

Concentrating solar power technologies (CSP) have emerged as one of the most promising candidates for large-scale power generation due to their capability to supply power constantly throughout the day and night. However, significant challenges associated with the low efficiencies and high infrastructure costs of solar thermal power plants limit the broad deployment of such technologies. Specifically, typical solar to thermal energy conversion efficiencies are ~55% and thermal to electrical conversion efficiencies via a steam (Rankine) cycle are ~25%. Accordingly, overall efficiencies are low, typically ~10-15%. In addition, these systems rely on expensive mirrors and optics to concentrate the solar energy to achieve the desired electricity output. Furthermore, when in hot climates, CSP systems only generate power, and rely on this electrical power production to operate air0conditioning systems. Specifically in the UAE, cooling consumes up to 70% of all electrical energy. In UAE all power produced from fossil fuel-fired power plants with a significant carbon footprint. Significant advancements for the development of efficient solar thermal technologies are needed for a sustainable future.


Power and cooling demands are highly coupled in Abu Dhabi and UAE. Cooling contributes a large portion of peak power consumption, i.e., up to 70% in UAE in summer, which mainly comes from fossil fuel-fired power plants with negative carbon footprints. The solar-driven combined power and cooling technology we propose provides an alternative energy-efficient and sustainable way to solve the power and cooling challenge in the UAE. The compact and high performance solar-driven design is ideal for UAE's remote farms, islands in the Arabian Gulf, or even mobile defense applications to provide both electricity and cooling. This kind of stand-alone renewable power generation plant promises little maintenance from technicians, thus, is extremely attractive for desert regions in UAE. Our proposed solar thermal power and ejector cooling cycle has great potential to replace existing high global-warming-potential (~1000) refrigerants for massive air-conditioning and refrigeration cooling units in Abu Dhabi and the GCC region. The proposed power and cooling system is also applicable to other waste or low grade energy recovery applications, such as steel plants, municipal solid waste plants, natural gas transmission stations, and geothermal plants. Moreover, the proposed solar-driven thermal system can also be integrated with seawater desalination system, i.e., mechanical work from the power cycle is available to pump seawater through reverse osmosis for fresh water. This research project will offer great opportunities for prospective students and train them to become the global leaders in a sustainable power industry in the future. Patents that may emerge from this project may also be get start-ups and nurture certain small-business companies around Masdar to commercialize our component design. Implementation of the concept will contribute to the UAE goal of 7% of its energy from renewable sources by 2030.