Giving Solar Powered Systems More Sol

May 23, 2024

Solar energy conversion is a time-tested method to provide power to electrical devices in remote locations where the electrical grid is not available, including on land, under water, and in space. Because of the diffuse nature of sunlight and the current efficiency of existing solar photovoltaic (PV) devices, only a modest amount of energy can be converted in a small area of solar panels. This limits the types of devices that can be deployed on these remote platforms.

For the Intelligence Community (IC), these limits are problematic because many IC missions require robust, long-term power solutions. To address these limitations, the IC’s Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), will launch the Superior Options for Long-life Solar Technologies with Impressive Conversion Efficiencies (SOLSTICE) program, which aims to develop advanced solar powered systems.

The SOLSTICE program’s goal is to create innovative solar-powered and hybrid solar-powered systems with significantly higher power and energy density than existing technologies. These systems will be capable of maintaining performance over their mission lifetime in challenging, remote applications, including in an earth-orbital environment or on the earth’s surface.

The IC routinely relies upon a variety of stand-alone electronic assets deployed in remote locations and the power systems onboard these devices are essential to ensure mission success. However, because there is typically limited or no ability to service these devices in the field, power systems are often overdesigned to ensure continuity of mission operations.

This overdesign adds weight, volume, and deployment complexity that may “squeeze-out” payload components that would otherwise be valuable to have. This means some desired higher-power payloads may simply be impractical to implement due to power system limitations.

“Focusing on system-level efficiency is key,” said SOLSTICE Program Manager, Dr. Brian Borak. “Integrating new components and identifying how the system can adapt and excel in a range of environments and conditions could enable the type of power density improvements that may have a big impact.”

The SOLSTICE program is expected to be structured into three phases over four years:

  • During phase 1, which will last 18 months, teams will demonstrate proofs of concept for novel high-risk components of their proposed system design.
  • Phase 2, also 18 months long, will see teams assemble a first-generation technology demonstration prototype power system (PPS), combining components proposed and approved by IARPA in their end of Phase 1 design plans.
  • Phase 3 will last 12 months, during which teams will revise their PPS design based on Phase 2 results and demonstrate a higher-power-output PPS.

How the IC may ultimately use SOLSTICE technology will be up to them. But power system solutions could be employed in a wide variety of applications in each target environment that needs consistently high-power delivery to payloads. To achieve this, there are no specific requirements for the type or form of powered device that should be utilized.

SOLSTICE Proposers’ Day, which was on May 7, 2024, generated significant interest, with around 130 attendees representing a wide range of private sector, academic, and government organizations. In the coming months, performer teams and testing and evaluation partners will be selected.

“I’m very pleased with the robust interest SOLSTICE has received from the technical community,” Dr. Borak said. “And I’m really hopeful some truly different and innovative ideas will reach the aggressive targets we’ve set for SOLSTICE.”

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