'Solar canopy' turns sunlight into electricity and art

Updated 1st March 2017
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'Solar canopy' turns sunlight into electricity and art
Written by By Sophie Morlin-Yron, CNN
In the desert metropolis of Dubai, where the summer is one long heat wave, shade is precious as people seek refuge from the sun's scorching rays.
Enter Italian architect and designer Carlo Ratti's latest creation -- a shiny metal canopy that can be used to create micro climates in outdoor areas by controlling light and shade.
The roof of the canopy is made up of round mirrors, each with their own motor, which means they can be individually angled to reflect different amounts of sunlight and provide varied amounts of shade at different times.
They can also help generate power by reflecting the sun's rays towards a solar panel placed nearby.
"Think of this as a magic canopy you can put over outdoor spaces and terraces," says Ratti, also a professor at the MIT Senseable City Laboratory and co-chair of the World Economic Forum's Global Council on the Future of Cities and Urbanization.
The aim is to curb the heat that makes public areas in places like Dubai "unlivable" during the hottest times, Ratti says.

Like a field of sunflowers

The mirrors can track the sun throughout the day, much like a field of sunflowers longing for the sun's rays.
And Ratti says the canopy is also a new take on the 70s disco ball: the mirrors can be programmed to create beautiful patterns or spell out words in the canopy's shadow. "It's a new way to play with the sun," he says.
Partly inspired by traditional Arabian courtyards, which often feature cloth canopies, Ratti describes it as "an evolution of the traditional ways of controlling levels of light, commonly seen in Arabic architecture."
While the prototype is just six-by-six-meters in size, future models could cover whole courtyards and squares and allow owners to put their artistic stamp on the shade they create.
The technology does have its challenges: The prototype is sensitive to rain, although future versions will be waterproof, Ratti says. And it's more expensive than a traditional canopy, although Ratti expects prices to become more affordable in the future.
"The cost of the prototype was high, but once you produce it on a larger scale, it could go down to around $100 per square meter," he says.
"We've already received several requests for developing this to fit a broader space," adds Ratti.
The prototype was unveiled at Dubai's 2017 World Government Summit in February at the exhibition "Climate Change Reimagined" at a pop-up version of Dubai's Museum of the Future. The permanent museum is currently under construction and set to open in 2018.
Run by the Dubai Future Foundation, the exhibition showcased designs that can help cities adapt to a changing climate.
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An artist's impression of Dubai's new Museum of the Future, built inside an oval-shaped glass structure Credit: Courtesy Dubai Future Foundation
From robotics and AI to self-driving cars and 3D printing, the museum will showcase world-leading innovations that transform urban areas.
Run by the Dubai Future Foundation, the exhibition showcased designs that can help cities adapt to a changing climate.

Adapting to rising temperatures

"It's about trying to understand the realities of climate change and how we might be able to turn the challenges of the coming decades into opportunities for innovation and entrepreneurship," says Noah Raford, chief operating officer at the Dubai Future Foundation.
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Set to open in 2018, the new museum will be an incubator for innovation and futuristic design Credit: Courtesy Dubai Future Foundation
Raford sees more renewable technologies being used across Dubai, and solar power in particular, with several solar farms currently under construction in the desert.
"There's plenty of sunshine in Dubai, and the government hope to reach 75% renewables by 2050."

Shade reimagined

The digital canopy was included in the exhibition as an example of creating digitally responsive environments, Raford says. "It was the cherry on top."
Ratti hopes to see shade "reimagined" in cities which are vulnerable to rising temperatures.
He says: "We see big potential for architecture to help us work with something we call climate remediation, which is about creating small micro climates that can help us fight against climate change in the future."