Testing solar thermal component durability would have been impossible without LANL’s polymer expertise.
Larry Mapes, president of ThermaSun and longtime Taos resident, has been hooked on sun power since childhood. While the rest of the country relied on fossil fuels during the 80s and 90s, Mapes began developing and designing solar thermal systems to supply his neighbors with hot water and heat. Theoretically, solar thermal can convert up to 85% of the sun’s rays into usable energy. Yet converting sunlight into a home’s heating system isn’t as easy as it seems.
Typical solar thermal collectors can achieve temperatures of 400ºF, a temperature that causes plastic components in solar thermal systems to degrade, become brittle, melt, or swell in heat transfer fluids. While solar photovoltaic (PV) systems often come with a 25-year warranty, solar thermal systems rarely offer such assurances. Seeking ways to test for reliability and durability, Mapes approached NMSBA for help.
Dr. Bruce Orler, a Materials Science & Technology scientist at LANL who studies aging in materials, evaluated a selection of commercially available parts and materials for Mapes. Dr. Orler applied his knowledge of polymer chemistry, materials compatibility, and accelerated aging methodologies to test plastic components’ chemical response to a typical solar system’s heat demands. Dr. Orler’s work helped Mapes select appropriate materials for a durable heat conversion device prototype called the ThermaSaver, which can be connected to existing home heating and cooling systems.
In 2009, ThermaSun received a Los Alamos National Security, LLC Venture Acceleration Fund (VAF) award for product validation, manufacturing process, product certification, business development, and market analysis for the ThermaSaver. Mapes plans to manufacture and sell the long lasting units, creating jobs and economic growth in northern New Mexico. “The ultimate goal is to put solar thermal on equal footing with solar PV,” explains Mapes. “Just like the PV inverter of the 1980s, our work will simplify installations, meet utility durability standards, and interface with a home’s existing heating and cooling systems.”