A solar thermal collector is a solar collector specifically intended to collect heat: that is, to absorb sunlight to provide heat. Although the term may be applied to simple solar hot water panels, it is usually used to denote more complex installations. There are various types of thermal collectors, such as solar parabolic, solar trough and solar towers. These type of collectors are generally used in solar power plants where solar heat is used to generate electricity by heating water to produce steam and driving a turbine connected to the electrical generator.
Flat plate and box-type collectors are typically used in domestic and light industry applications. Parabolic troughs, dishes and towers are used almost exclusively in solar power generating stations or for research purposes. Conversion efficiency of a solar collector is expressed as eta0 or η0.
A flat plate is the most common type of solar thermal collector, and is usually used as a solar hot water panel to generate solar hot water. A weatherproofed, insulated box containing a black metal absorber sheet with built in pipes is placed in the path of sunlight. Solar energy heats up water in the pipes causing it to circulate through the system by natural convection (thermosyphon). The water is usually passed to a storage tank located above the collector. This passive solar water heating system is generally used in hotels and homes in sunny climates such as those found in southern Europe.
For these purposes, the general practice is to use flat-plate solar energy or evacuated tube collectors with a fixed orientation (position). The highest efficiency with a fixed flat-plate collector or evacuated tube collector is obtained if it faces toward the sun and slopes at an angle to the horizon equal to the latitude plus about 10 degrees. Solar collectors fall into two general categories: non-concentrating and concentrating.
In the non-concentrating type, the collector area (i.e. the area that intercepts the solar radiation) is the same as the absorber area (i.e., the area absorbing the radiation).
There are many flat-plate collector designs but generally all consist of (1) a flat-plate absorber, which intercepts and absorbs the solar energy, (2) a transparent cover(s) that allows solar energy to pass through but reduces heat loss from the absorber, (3) a heat-transport fluid (air, antifreeze or water) flowing through tubes to remove heat from the absorber, and (4) a heat insulating backing. One flat plate collector is designed to be evacuated, to prevent heat loss.
Some types of collectors are specifically designed to contain potable water. In areas where freezing is a possibility, metal collectors must be carefully plumbed so they completely drain down using gravity before freezing can happen so that they do not crack. Other recently developed collectors are freeze tolerant instead. These can freeze without damage because their water channels are typically made of food grade polymers such as silicone rubber, which is flexible and remains stable at temperatures of 200C.
Other collectors are part of a sealed heat exchange system, rather than having the potable water flow directly through the collectors. A mixture of water and propylene glycol (which is used in the food industry) can be used as a heat exchange fluid to protect against freeze damage, up to a temperature that depends on the proportion of propylene glycol in the mixture. The use of glycol lowers the water's heat carrying capacity only marginally, while the addition of an extra heat exchanger may lower system performance at low light levels.
The first accurate model of flat plate solar collectors were developed by Hottel and Whillier in the 1950's.
These collectors have multiple evacuated glass tubes which heat up solar absorbers and, ultimately, solar working fluid (water or an antifreeze mix -- typically propylene glycol) in order to heat domestic hot water, or for hydronic space heating. The vacuum within the evacuated tubes reduce conducted heat losses, allowing them to reach considerably higher temperatures than most flat-plate collectors. The evacuated tubes draw their energy from the available light rather than outside temperature. For these reasons they can perform well in colder conditions. The advantage is largely lost in warmer climates, except in those cases where very hot water is desirable, for example commercial process water. The high temperatures that can occur may require special system design to avoid or mitigate overheating conditions though some have built in temperature limitation.
A claimed advantage this design has over the flat-plate type is that the constant profile of the round tube means that the collector is always perpendicular to the sun's rays and therefore the energy absorbed is approximately constant over the course of a day. The question what to do with the "lost" sun shining through the gaps between evacuated tubes (gaps which can be as wide as the tubes' absorbtive surface themselves) can be addressed either by by adding specially curved metal reflectors under the evacuated tubes or by reverting to the use of flat plate collectors which are designed not to offer any gaps in the collector's light interception profile.
This type of collector is much like a flat-plate collector, except that it has no glazing/transparent cover. It is used extensively for pool heating, as it works quite well when the desired output temperature is near the ambient temperature (that is, when it's warm outside). As the ambient temperature gets cooler, these collectors become extremely ineffective.
These collectors heat air directly, almost always for space heating. They are also used for pre-heating make-up air in commercial and industrial HVAC systems
A common solar cooker is a box type collector. It is a metal box open from top, and insulated from sides with an equally sized mirror hinged to it (like a simple box with a mirror attached to the underside of the cover).
This type of collector is generally used in solar power plants. A trough-shaped parabolic reflector is used to concentrate sunlight on an insulated tube (Dewar tube) or heat pipe, placed at the focal point, containing coolant which transfers heat from the collectors to the boilers in the power station.
It is the most powerful type of collector which concentrates sunlight at a single, focal point, via one or more parabolic dishes -- arranged in a similar fashion to a reflecting telescope focuses starlight, or a dish antenna focuses radio waves. This geometry may be used in solar furnaces and solar power plants.
There are two key phenomenena to understand in order to comprehend the design of a parabolic dish. One is that the shape of a parabola is defined such that incoming rays which are parallel to the dish's axis will be reflected toward the focus, no matter where on the dish they arrive. The second key is that the light rays from the sun arriving at the earth's surface are almost completely parallel. So if dish can be aligned with its axis pointing at the sun, almost all of the incoming radiation will be reflected towards the focal point of the dish -- most losses are due to imperfections in the parabolic shape and imperfect reflection.
Losses due to atmosphere between the dish and its focal point are minimal, as the dish is generally designed specifically to be small enough that this factor is insignificant on a clear, sunny day. Compare this though with some other designs, and you will see that this could be an important factor, and if the local weather is hazy, or foggy, it may reduce the efficiency of a parabolic dish significantly.
In some power plant designs, a stirling engine coupled to a dynamo, is placed at the focus of the dish, which absorbs the heat of the incident solar radiation, and converts it into electricity. See Knowing Parabolic Concentrators and Concentrating Solar power overview
A power tower is a large tower surrounded by small rotating (tracking) mirrors called heliostats. These mirrors align themselves and focus sunlight on the receiver at the top of tower, collected heat is transferred to a power station below.
Another design is a pyramid shaped structure, which works by drawing in air, heating it with solar energy and moving it through turbines to generate electricity. Solar pyramids have been built in places like Australia. Currently India is building such pyramids.