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Silicone, a key ingredient in renewable energy


Silicone, as a durable, inorganic compound, has a great many uses across a multitude of industries. One of the more exciting industries in which silicone polymer usage is widespread is the renewable energy industry; where its efficiency and long-lasting strength are an absolute boon. The central advantage of the use of silicone is that it often replaces the use of petroleum based organic products, which can leave behind or produce a lot of environmentally damaging pollutants; and which also last a far shorter period of time when compared to silicone.

Indeed, some forms of silicone have been designed with the express purpose of aiding in the responsible construction of renewable energy providing devices and installations. kSil™VAC, a proprietary silicone material produced by Silicone Engineering is a prime example of this, with its high tear resistance and high elongation properties making it an ideal material for the use in vacuum membrane machines for the construction of solar panels and composites such as wind turbine rotor blades. The superior attributes of a custom silicone material like Silicone Engineering’s kSil™VAC greatly increase the speed and environmental efficiency of the production of renewable energy sources; helping both the renewable energy industry and the planet.

With silicone’s impressive material credentials established, we’ll take a look through some of the ways in which the many positive attributes of silicone materials are of particular benefit to the renewable energy industry, through the use of some specific, practical examples.

Solar panel design and production

solar panels - renewable energy
Solar panels are becoming increasingly popular around the world, providing an easy to use source of renewable energy for both domestic and commercial use. From powering home appliances, to acting as the primary energy source of some varieties of unmanned drone, all the way to acting as the primary power source of the international space station; the potential applications of solar panels are wide ranging; and silicone is a key component in their construction.

Solar panels are simply a collection of solar cells, which themselves generally consist of multiple layers of silicon, placed over a substrate such as glass or plastic. The specific variety of silicon that is utilised in the construction of solar cells can vary to a fairly large degree; from monocrystalline silicon to ribbon silicon. The differences between these forms of silicon is down to the way in which they are formed, and resulting in an array of different chemical structures, all of which best suit a number of individual uses. Therefore some of these varieties of silicon are better suited to the efficient operation of solar panels than others; some are used for their aforementioned efficiency, while some are instead cheaper to produce than others.

But this is where it becomes important to differentiate between silicon and silicone; the silicon from which solar cells are primarily constructed is a naturally occurring element, while the silicone that this article primarily concerns is a compound made up of silicon mixed with other elements; such as carbon and hydrogen making it an elastomer. This addition of elements makes the silicone compounds in question that much better adapted for their specific roles, adding new attributes to an already robust selection.

The primary use of silicone in regards to solar panel design is in the actual vacuum membrane presses that construct the solar panels rather than kSil™VAC silicone rubber being in the solar panels themselves.

kSil™VAC, by Silicone Engineering, is used to maintain a vacuum around the components of a solar panel, which in turn assists the bonding, by forming a membrane. This process is essential for ensuring the long life and structural integrity of solar panels, and the superior elasticity, tensile strength and overall durability of kSil™VAC ensures that fast and efficient production of solar panels is consistently possible as well as providing longer production life of the membranes meaning a more cost efficient material than that of latex or other rubber materials. This in turn means that manufacturers are better able to cope with the increase in demand that is forecast for solar panel construction in the near future.

Wind turbine construction

wind turbines
The very nature of wind turbines ensures that they are often placed in areas where adverse weather is more common; their exposure to wind is essential for their effective performance, after all! The weathering abilities of silicone, that make it of such use in the construction of solar panels, are also what make it of such utility in the manufacture of wind turbines. After all, if a wind turbine loses effectiveness due to the incursion of rain; either as a result of rusting components, or the shorting of outgoing power lines; then the very purpose of the wind turbine has been undermined. At the end of the day, a wind turbine is not only supposed to produce power, but do so in a more effective manner than non-environmentally sound alternatives. When this stops being the case, a wind turbine essentially becomes pointless.

Protection from the elements is not the only manner in which silicone assists in the promotion of environmentally friendly energy production, though. While the safeguarding of the internal workings of a wind turbine is obviously of extreme importance to the efficient production of energy within such installations, silicone is also able to assist with the efficiency of energy production in more immediate ways. Despite the protection offered by silicone externally, wear and tear are sadly still an inescapable reality of machinery such as wind turbines; even if adverse weather wasn’t an issue, the frequent action of the moving parts within a wind turbine ensures that mechanical failure is an inescapable eventuality. Therefore, silicone based lubricants can form a key role in the maintenance and continued function of wind turbines, allowing them to keep operating long after their mechanisms would have otherwise ceased to function. This range of long lasting lubricants keep the many moving parts of a wind turbine working as effectively as possible; allowing the effects of age and wear to be mitigated for as long as possible.

As with the manufacture of solar panels, the manufacture of wind turbines requires the use of silicone rubber to act as an effective vacuum membrane when dealing with intricate composites. And in the same way as with the manufacture of solar panels, this area of manufacture once again allows kSil™VAC, the specialist silicone vacuum sheeting manufactured by Silicone Engineering, to shine; providing a high level of performance that support the increasing demand for renewable energy in both civil and private spheres. Indeed, the continued development of specialist materials such as kSil™VAC demonstrates the ongoing popularity, and growing demand, for renewable energy sources as a whole.

Power line protection and insulation

Of course, all of the extra efficiency and protection provided to renewable power sources by silicone based products would be moot if the delivery method of this hard won energy was itself inefficient. It doesn’t matter how effectively a well can draw water, if the bucket used to transport the water has a hole in the bottom! In order to ensure that the energy efficiency and environmental sustainability bought by innovations in silicone technology and treatments at the energy production stage isn’t wasted, it’s necessary to also protect the efficiency and function of energy delivery.

Silicone is also able to step into this particular gap in functionality, further protecting the production of environmentally friendly energy from inefficiency and untenable wastage. As with the previously mentioned issues in solar and wind energy production, the principle issues facing the efficient and environmentally friendly carriage of responsibly generated electricity are caused by weather.

Silicone materials are already widely utilised for the insulation of electrical wires, providing a layer of protection for people within close proximity to them, while also ensuring that energy isn’t leached out or diverted by any other means. In the case of power lines, there is often also a coating of silicone insulation material coating the wire. However the nature of power lines also ensures that the presence of specific insulation apparatus at intervals along the line, to protect against surges, and lightning strikes, is necessary. In this way silicone provides an essential role in safeguarding the efficiency of energy production, and minimising environmental damage in the process.

Environmentally friendly

While the functionality of silicone materials in maintaining the efficiency, and protecting the operation of renewable energy, is clearly demonstrated above, another important aspect of silicone usage in the manufacture and transport of environmentally friendly energy is in its own environmentally friendly nature.

Due to its non-biodegradable chemical structure, silicone produces no harmful by-products, and refuses to degrade, regardless of the environmental conditions that it’s exposed to. Not only does this make the environmental impact of silicone minimal, it also ensures that the environmental impact of the devices protected by silicone based materials are extremely low, and considerably better than they would have otherwise been.

About the author

Simon Holmes
 

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