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[CAIRO] Abu Dhabi is teaming up with a global electronics company to develop better coatings for solar panels to make them cheaper and easier to keep clean in desert conditions.

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region stands to benefit from concentrated solar power (CSP) — a technology that uses lenses or mirrors to focus large amounts of sunlight onto a small area. This light is converted to heat, which generates electricity.

In 2009, a joint study by the International Energy Agency's SolarPACES group, the European Solar Thermal Electricity Association and Greenpeace International concluded that CSP could generate up to a quarter of the world's energy needs by 2050.

But harsh desert conditions in parts of the MENA region generate large amounts of airborne dust which collects on the solar panels used in CSP systems, reducing their efficiency. They need regular cleaning, which consumes large amounts of water.

Bodo Becker, operations manager at Flagsol, which developed Egypt's first solar-thermal plant, Kuraymat, said this is a serious issue at his facility.

"If we leave dust to accumulate for just one month, the output of the solar panels decreases by about 35 per cent," he said, adding that the facility uses nearly 40,000 litres of water every day.

Now, the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology says it will work with Siemens AG to develop coatings using water-repellent materials, commonly used to manage oil spills.

These materials force water droplets to form beads that then trap dust, meaning that less water would be needed to keep the panels clean.

"This coating technology could provide a huge boost for solar projects in the MENA region, reducing operations and maintenance costs without compromising high energy yields," Matteo Chiesa, associate professor of mechanical engineering at the Masdar Institute, told SciDev.Net.     

He said the team is also developing a modelling tool that will incorporate weather data, to predict how often the panels will need cleaning.

Chiesa said field tests are underway to test the coating and predictive tool, and that the adapted solar panels could reach the market within five years.

But Salah Arafa, physics professor at the American University in Cairo, said dust isn't the only problem facing CSP technology in MENA.

"Cost effectiveness, the political willingness, and securing local trained and experienced workers are the main obstacles towards more widespread use of CSP systems," he said.