Aluminium Alloys in Solar Power − Benefits and Limitations

Aluminium Alloys in Solar Power − Benefits and Limitations

Fossil fuels are associated with some problems like air pollution,scientists have been encouraged to find suitable sources of energy as replacements for fossil fuels. Aluminium applications in solar power systems,Aluminium alloys have became a significant and inseparable part of each of the mentioned group of solar power systems, mainly due to special properties of aluminium and its alloys. Properties and applications of each kind of the mentioned solar power systems as well as the role of aluminium alloys in each of them will be discussed separately.

Aluminum is playing a predominant role in solar power system because of its technical capability,ease of fabrication and ease of transport use, recyclability and resistant to corrosion. The promising future of aluminium in solar power is reflected by the projections on market growth from 210 mm2 to 11 bmm2. By 2050, the amount could reach 39 mtons from the existing 17 mtons. The major attributes are large energy area for collection, solar directed installation and dynamic development. However there are several technical problems associated with solar power such as the ingress of moisture causing corrosion and leakage of current causing deterioration of modules. The water vapours ingresses through the edges and increases the conductivity of the front glass surface and also the magnitude of leaking current. In the four types of modules a). C-Si, b). PC-Si, c). 2J a-Si (Glass/TCO/a-Si/Al/Glass) and 3 Ja-Si (Fluropolymer/TCO/a-Si/stainless steel), the two modules containing a-Si showed the maximum resistance to HV operation. In HV operation, all modules degrade at rates higher than the modules not biased on HV. Films on PET showed promising properties as a back sheet replacement for glass. These coatings exhibit excellent moisture resistance properties and a good cohesion after exposure to damp heat. The corrosion effect can be minimized by increasing adhesion of transparent oxide by using Zinc oxide in place of Tin oxide and by using low acetate and high resistivity glass.

Dust is still haunting the scientists and engineers working on solar and space equipment. It is of vital importance to solar panels and equipment used in space exploration. A substantial amount of research has been done on electrodynamics system to remove dust. This is couples with creating a lotus surface (two level) hierarchical surface (nano/micro hybrid) to create self cleaning properties for removal of dust by mimicking the surface of a lotus flower. Various paints containing self cleaning agents have also been designed to remove dust. The wet chemistry route creating a superhydrophobic surface is an outstanding achievement but it cannot be applied in dessert conditions. Intensive work is undertaken by NASA to create dust shields. It appear that new techniques would be developed to mitigate the degradation of PV modules and the use of aluminum would continue to rise.

Article sourced from intechopen Materials Science » Metals and Nonmetals » "Aluminium Alloys - New Trends in Fabrication and Applications", book edited by Zaki Ahmad, ISBN 978-953-51-0861-0, Published: December 5, 2012 under CC BY 3.0 license. © The Author(s).
Chapter 13 
Aluminium Alloys in Solar Power − Benefits and Limitations
By Amir Farzaneh, Maysam Mohammdi, Zaki Ahmad and Intesar Ahmad
DOI: 10.5772/54721

Aluminium Alloys in Solar Power − Benefits and Limitations

Amir Farzaneh3, Maysam Mohammadi4, Zaki Ahmad1, 2 and Intesar Ahmad5

1. Introduction

It has been widely accepted that fossil fuels have played significance roles in human’s daily life and industrial developments. However, fossil fuels are associated with some problems like air pollution. Moreover, fossil fuels have limited sources in the world that will be finished in near future if the consuming rate of fossil fuels does not decrease. So, scientists have been encouraged to find suitable sources of energy as replacements for fossil fuels.

Sunlight, wind, see waves and hydrogen are examples of renewable sources of energy that have been subjects of researches for many years.

Among all of he mentioned renewable sources of energy, the sun is the most abundant and most renewable source that provides the energy for human much more than they need. If we can collect 0.01% of the sun’s energy reaching the earth, it would be more than energy that all human use today.

Amount of the energy that reaches from the sun to a specific location on the surface of the earth can be 1000 W/m2 [1]. Solar energy is had been received great world wide attention during the last decades as the most ideal renewable source of energy, which is mainly due to the points that this energy is safe, clean, free and unlimited [2]. Basic of fusion reaction in the sun and solar energy production have been discussed in many monographs [3-6].

The sun sends out huge quantity of electromagnetic radiations to the earth, which transfer approximately 4000 trillion kWh of energy to the earth surface each day [7]. This amount of energy is much higher than human’s demand and also more than any other source of energy on the earth like nuclear power or fossil fuel burning. Solar energy is associated with some economic and environmental advantages, and has been considered as replacement source of energy for traditional sources of energy [8].

History of employing solar energy goes back to 212 BC, when Archimedes. The Greek scientist used metallic mirror to burn a Roman fleet [9]. Cooking food, heating water and home, and drying grains were the first applications of the sun’s energy [10-12]. In 18th century, solar furnaces were constructed by glass lenses, mirrors and polished iron, which were capable to melt metals like iron and copper. During 19th century, solar energy was used to operate steam engine and convert solar to electrical energy [13].

Nowadays, solar energy are used in wide range of industrial, business and residential applications such as electricity generation, water heating, industrial processes, daylighting, heating and cooling [1]. As a consequence of rapid development of the solar power technologies, it is expected that solar systems will provide 12% to 25% of global electricity by 2050 [8].

Growing demand for heat and electricity generation in developed and developing countries causes rapid development in solar power generation systems. Quality and physical properties of materials that are used in solar systems determine the efficiency of each solar system. Different materials are used in various kinds of solar power systems such as glass, silver, steel, stainless steel and aluminium.

Among all of the mentioned materials, aluminium has special properties that make it an interesting material for many solar power companies. Light weight, high strength, proper corrosion properties, high surface reflectivity, excellent electrical and thermal conductivities, as well as special optic properties of its anodic coating are such as interesting properties of aluminium that make it inseparable part of solar power systems.

To sum up, aluminium plays an important role in various kinds of solar power systems include concentrating solar power (CSP), photovoltaic solar power (PV) and solar thermal collections. The application of aluminium and its alloys in these solar systems are explained in this chapter. Besides, its economical effect and future market are explored here.

2. Aluminium applications in solar power systems

In order to find the role of aluminium and its alloys in solar power systems, it is necessary to review different types of solar power plants, their properties, requirements and applications. Generally, solar power systems are divided into three widely used categories, which called concentrating solar power (CSP), solar thermal absorbers and photovoltaic solar cells (PV). Aluminium alloys have became a significant and inseparable part of each of the mentioned group of solar power systems, mainly due to special properties of aluminium and its alloys. Properties and applications of each kind of the mentioned solar power systems as well as the role of aluminium alloys in each of them will be discussed separately.


Concentrating solar power systems include reflector materials that concentrate heat energy .of the sun to a point or line to generate steam in a boiler, drive steam turbine and produce electricity [14-36]. Generation electricity, however, is not the only application of the CSP systems. Concentrated solar energy is suitable source of energy that can be used in wide range of materials processing such as producing metallic foams [37], synthesis of nanomaterials like carbon nanotubes and ceramic nanoparticles [38], fast heating of ceramic materials close to thermal shock [39], breaking down metal oxides to its metal counterpart [40-42], surface treatment [38] and metal sintering [43].

Cost of energy generation by CSP is much lower than that of PV, which is mainly due to higher average efficiency of CSP (42% compared with 15% for PV) and requires smaller field to produce certain amount of energy [8,44]. The cost of energy generation by solar collection devices is also lower than thermal solar collecting systems[45].

CSP has facilitated a system for production of energy which is neither noisy nor toxic. Therefore, this system can be used in cities without any safety problem [2,44].

Based on the focus geometry and receiving technology, CSP has been divided into four types.


In this kind of CSP, a series of curved mirrors concentrate sunlight on to a tube that located in the trough’s focal line. This tube contains oil and is used as heat transfer medium. Temperature of the oil in the tube can reach as high as 400°C [46]. Figure1 shows a real and a schematic of a parabolic trough CSP system. This system was used in 1912 in Egypt for the first time [8]. The parabolic trough system is able to concentrate sunlight by 70-100 times and transfer solar to electrical energy with efficiency of 15% [47].



Parabolic trough concentrating solar power plant [47]


Solar tower plants use many reflectors called heliostats to collect sunlight reaching a field to a certain point on top of a tower, where a collector is located (Figure 2). The concentrated energy can generate electric energy with efficiency of 20-35% [8,46].



Solar tower concentrating solar power plant [47].


Parabolic dish concentrating solar system uses a reflector dish and concentrate sunlight onto its focal point. Figure 3 shows the schematic of this solar system. A receiver that located in the focal point of the dish can increase the temperature of the gas or fluid up to 750°C in a sunny day. Capacities of parabolic dish plants and their efficiency in changing solar to electrical energy are in the range of 0.01-0.4 MW and 25-30%, respectively. Due to its design, its optical efficiency is significantly higher than two other mentioned categories of CSP plants. Parabolic dishes are currently used in some simple application like cooking oven [8,13,46].



Parabolic dish concentrating solar power plant [47].


Linear Fresnel is a line-focus collector that consists of series of Fresnel lens behaving mirrors (Figure 4). Capacity of this solar concentrator is 10-200Mw and its efficiency to generate electric energy is between 8 and 10% [8].

Table 1 compares various properties of the mentioned CSP plants.



Linear Fresnel concentrating solar power plant [47].

Capacity (MW) Concentration Annual solar to electric conversion efficiency Cost (Dollars /ft2field)
Parabolic trough 10-200 70-80 15% 40
Solar tower 10-200 300-1000 20-35% 45
Parabolic dish 0.01-0.4 1000-3000 25-30%
Linear Fresnel 10-200 25-100 8-10% 20


Properties of CSP technologies [8,46,47]

Currently, capacity of installed concentrated solar power plants is 516MW in the world. 90.2% of this capacity belongs to parabolic trough systems, followed by 8.5% for solar tower, 0.8% for Fresnel trough systems and 0.24% for solar dishes [48].

Reflectors of concentrated solar power should have some properties, such as high reflectance ratio and low absorption, good wetability and low cost. Aluminium and silver are the most common reflectors for CSP systems due to their high reflecting efficiency in solar wavelength range [45].

Reflectors of concentrated solar power should have some properties, such as high reflectance ratio and low absorption, good wetability and low cost. Aluminium and silver are the most common reflectors for CSP systems because of their high reflecting efficiency in solar wavelength range [45].

Aluminium has some special properties that make it a useful mirror in various applications of solar cells, lasers and astronomer’s instruments [2].

For example, aluminium can be deformed easily to have the best shape of reflectors and achieve the highest concentrating efficiency. Unlike glass mirrors, aluminium reflectors can not broken easily, which is a favourite property for outdoor applications [49].

Aluminium mirrors not only have better surface reflectivity than glass mirrors, they are much lighter. Compared to glass mirrors that have average weight of 11kg/m2, aluminium reflectors have only weight of 7 kg/m2.

Due to mechanical properties of aluminium and its low cost compared with silvered glass mirrors, aluminized reflectors found applicability to high temperature solar concentrating technologies [50].

Rolled aluminium also can be suitable for certain solar energy applications since it is cheaper than other reflector materials and can be cost-effective material in this application [45].

Thermal evaporation is one of the most practical methods to prepare aluminium reflector in order to use in concentrated solar power systems [2].

Ling et al. [2] studied performances of aluminium reflectors produced by thermal evaporation method on different substrates include galvanized iron, acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) and aluminium alloy. Experimental results clarified that reflection of thermally evaporated aluminium on ABS is comparable with that of silver mirror of ultra-white glass. It was also found that smoothness and roughness of the substrate have important effects on optical properties of the aluminium reflectors.


Solar thermal collector is a kind of solar power system that transforms solar energy from the sun rays into thermal energy. This solar system is widely used for generation of hot water, home heating and electricity generation [1,48].

Based on the kind of used collectors, solar thermal collecting systems divided into three types [1,13,48]:


This technology of solar thermal collectors provides a low cost heat and is used only for public bath heating and hay dying. Aluminium and its alloys have approximately no special application in unglazed plastic collectors.


Lower radiation and convection heat transfer losses in this solar thermal collectors compared to unglazed plastic collectors enables it to warm up to higher temperature. This system is widely used for space heating and hot water generation.


Due to special design of this kind of solar thermal collectors, its conductive and convective losses are very low. So, it is capable to warm up the heat carry fluid up to 150°C.

According to figures recently released in Solar Heat World-wide report, the amount of energy that was generated by solar thermal collectors in the world in 2007 was approximately 147 GW. Fabrication of this amount of energy by solar thermal collectors requires approximately 210 square kilometres. Solar heating capacity of these solar systems had increased by 15% in the year of 2008, and became double compared to 2004. Capacity of solar thermal collectors does not equally divided among the mentioned solar thermal categories. According to published figures, approximately 50% of total amount of energy resulted from solar thermal collectors has been generated Evacuated tube collectors. Contributing proportions of Flat plate and Unglazed plastic collectors are 33% and 17%, respectively.

As mentioned before, Unglazed plastic collectors do not provide significant opportunity for aluminium usage. However, both of the other groups use aluminium and its alloys in different parts.

Figure 5 shows a Flat-plate collector and introduces its various parts; casing, absorber and frame. Aluminium, copper and steel are the materials that are used for absorbers. Casing and frames are usually made of aluminium and steel. However, aluminium is predominantly used because of lower weight of this alloy in that that of steel. Moreover, using aluminium as absorbers is growing. Special optic properties of anodic layer of aluminium and some aluminium alloys make aluminium a useful material for solar absorption. These qualities will be explained later. Today, approximately 35% of the solar absorbers are made of aluminium [1,13,48].



Different parts of a Flat-plate collector

Figure 6 shows main components of Evacuated tube solar thermal collectors, which are absorber, frame, heat pipes, header pipe and casing. Like what was mentioned for flat-plate collectors, using aluminium as absorber is growing. Low density of aluminium satisfies solar companies to use aluminium alloys for frames instead of stainless steel. Aluminium is also widely used in casing and header pipes [1,13,48].



Different parts of a Evacuated tube solar thermal collectors

As mentioned before, aluminium is one of the most important materials utilized in solar absorbing, which is mainly due to special structure of the anodic layer that can fabricated on aluminium surface by anodizing process. This anodic layer is porous; with various pore sizes depend on the kind of anodizing electrolyte and anodizing process conditions [51-56].

It has been shown that these pores can be filled with metals by electrodeposition to have a coloured surface layer composed of metal particles in alumina dielectric matrix [57,57,58]. Using some special metal particles or ions, like nickel, provides suitable optical properties in anodized layer of aluminium for solar absorption application [57,59]. It was found that surface reflection of coloured aluminium anodized layer, as an undesirable property of solar absorbers, is a function of colouring time. It also was shown that reflectance decreases with electrolytic coloration time [57].

The effect of coloring time on solar absorption of aluminium anodized layer is more obvious in thicker anodic layers [53].

The proposed model of coloured and sealed anodized aluminium layer is shown in Figure 7. This model shows that the aluminium anodic layer composed of three parts, which have different properties. The top region (part 1) is protective layer that composes of Al2O3 and aluminium hydroxide; the middle region (part 2) is optical absorption layer that filled with metallic pigments; and the lowest region (part 3) is barrier layer that is a compact layer and has the highest density among all of the mentioned parts [57].



Proposed model of coloured and sealed anodized aluminium layer [57].

Absorption mechanism of solar radiation in colored anodic aluminium layer has been described by Granqvist [58].

For a photothermal conversion, the highest efficiency will be provided when the thermal losses by surface radiation are low enough, and solar absorption is high.

Microstructure of an alloy plays an important role on its efficiency as an absorber. As shown by Cody and Stephens [60], surfaces that its dielectric constant change gradually from the material/air interface to that of solid materials have low reflections.

Eutectic binary aluminium alloys such as Al-6wt.% Ni, Al-33wt.% Cu and Al-7.5wt% Ca have such microstructure and have acceptable optic properties to be used as absorber; i.e. low reflection high absorption [61,62].

Mechanical and thermal stability of the mentioned aluminium alloys, as well as possibility of regeneration of their surface by retching make them useful materials in this application [61].


Photovoltaic cells directly convert solar to electrical energy using semiconductor materials. Semiconductors can generate free electrons using energy of sunlight [63]. Photovoltaic property of materials had been discoveres by Becquerel in 1830, when he found this effect in Selenium [13]. Various aspects of photovoltaic solar systems have been reported in different books and references [64-72].

Apace was the first application of photovoltaic solar cells because sun is the only source of energy in space [13]. Photovoltaic solar cells have been used in wide range of applications include water pumping, solar home systems, remote building, solar cars and airplanes, satellites and space vehicles. Such a vast variety of applications is the main cause for increasing demand for photovoltaic solar cells [63].

Photovoltaic solar power system has experienced great development rate. The capacity of this solar system had increased from 0.1 GW in 1992 to 2.8 GW in 2007 and 5.95 GW in 2008. Table 2 compares the market demand of PV in some countries in 2007 and 2008 [1].

Countries USA Japan Germany Spain Rest of Europe
Demand in 2007 (MW) 226 226 1328 650 170
Demand in 2007 (MW) 360 230 1860 2460 310


Photovoltaic solar system market in different regions of the world [1]

Various advantages of photovoltaic solar systems make it a favourite technology in many industries. It has been observed that PV is one of the fastest growing industries in the world. This rapid growth requires new developments with respect of applicable structural materials [73].

Construction and structure of photovoltaic solar systems are the main part of this system that can be made of aluminium. Steel and aluminium are the most common materials that are used in construction of solar power systems.

However, the advantages of aluminium alloys over steel, other aluminium alloys and composite materials make it the core material in building of large scale solar generation fields. Significant proportion of the cost of solar generation system is related to supporting materials and frames. For instance, approximately 25-30% of the budget of CSP plants should be allocated to frames and support materials.

Some of the aluminium alloys can perform same as steel, but its weight is one-third of steel. Although aluminium alloys are more expensive than steel, using aluminium instead of steel can be economical. Lower density of aluminium gives the opportunity of easier, faster and cheaper transportation. Moreover, construction of a solar field would be faster if extruded aluminium is used instead of steel because it does not need crane and permanent joining process like welding. These properties of aluminium enable engineers to design and produce complex, efficient and stable structures.

6061 aluminium alloy that contains magnesium and silicon alloying elements is an example of useful aluminium alloys for structure of solar plants. This aluminium alloy is widely used in solar fields because of its high strength and machinability[74].

Another advantage of aluminium over steel is its higher corrosion resistance in outdoor environments, even if steel is galvanized. Even though aluminium is more chemically and electrochemically active than steel, a thin oxide layer that naturally formed on the aluminium surface in the air provides suitable protection for aluminium and enables it to have good performance for a long time. To illustration, consider the aluminium cap used in Washington monument was corroded only 0.13 mm after 73 years performance. The mentioned oxide layer is stable in pH range between 4.5 and 8.5. So, it may not provide enough protection if the aluminium is located in soil. However, most of solar collectors are mounted on concrete pads, which make the aluminium performance independent of soil conditions [74].

Since using solar power for electricity generation has became a serious competition among various companies, designing and using the most possible available, effective and efficient materials became very important. Extruded aluminium can be considered as one of these effective materials as it enables companies to create next generations of solar power plants with long life time and very low negative environmental effects.

PV inverter, which changes direct current to alternative current, and panel frame are the other components of a photovoltaic solar system that can be made of aluminium

Approximately 72% of aluminium input in photovoltaic solar systems is used in construction, while the proportion of aluminium used in panel frames and inverters are 22% and 6%, respectively [48].


Currently, CSP systems use approximately 55000 kilograms of aluminium per one megawatt generated energy, while used aluminium for photovoltaic cells is 45000 kg/MW.

CSP provides over 1000 MW of worldwide electricity, which looks to reach to 15000 MW in near future regarding to new solar projects in US, Spain, China, Morcco and India. Building these solar fields with the mentioned total capacity by aluminium frames requires 1080 million pounds of extruded aluminium [75].

If it can be assumed that the proportion of extruded aluminium that is used in construction of CSP plants remains 34%, the amount of the required aluminium for CSP plants will be approximately 635,000 tons in the next 20years [75].

Today, the amount of energy that is generated by CSP plants is approximately 0.5GW. Predictions reveal that capacity of solar collecting power plants will be 30GW in 2020, 140GW in 2030, and 800GW in 2050, which show a very rapid growth.

Based on these predictions and estimation of average use of aluminium, total amount of used aluminium in CSP plants will be 1.1 and 8 million tons in 2020 and 2030. The average amount of aluminium used in CSP plants in 2050 will be 51 million tons, which has the potential to be double. As a result, approximately 0.3% and 1.9% of annual aluminium production will be used in CSP plants in the decades of 2010-2020 and 2020-2030, respectively. This proportion will be 5.7% in average for the period of 2031-2050 [48].

Today, extruded aluminium used in photovoltaic solar plants is approximately 12% of total amount of aluminium that are used in this kind of solar power plants. If, like what mentioned in future market of CSP plants, it is assumed that this proportion remain constant in future, approximately 1,500,000 tons extruded aluminium will be used for these systems in the next two decades [75].

As mentioned before, these calculations are based on the assumption that the proportion of used aluminium in solar systems will not increase. Considering the growth of aluminium usage in solar systems during the last years, however, clarifies that the solar industries prefer to use extruded aluminium instead of steel frames. Consequently, demands for aluminium related to steel will increase in the course of time.

According to the report of International Energy Agency published in 2010 [47], about 14GW energy are produced by photovoltaic solar system in the world. It also is predicted that the average capacity of this solar system will be 87GW in 2020, 225GW in 225 and 597GW in 2050. Based on this prediction, total amount of aluminium used in photovoltaic solar system will be 3, 7 and 19 million tons in 2020, 2030 and 2050, respectively. Consequently, 0.64% of total annual aluminium production will be used in PV systems in decade 2010-2020, which will reach to 1.21% in decade 2020-2030 and 1.63% in period of 2030-2050.

Temperature is another important factor in efficiency of the photovoltaic solar systems. Researches have revealed that increasing temperature reduces the efficiency of PV solar cells. So, it is important to set a cooling system for PV cells, which provide an excellent opportunity for aluminium to extend its role in solar cells in near future [75].

Another advantage of aluminium over other kinds of materials that encourages many companies in different fields, especially in solar power systems, to use this metal and its alloys is successful and cheap recycling process for aluminium.