Introduction: Solar Concentrator

Picture of Solar Concentrator

A few months ago I got into my car, and it was really hot. (over 100 degrees, I was really interested so I checked it with a thermometer)
This inspired me to build a solar oven, I mean, if my car can get that hot, just imagine if heat was actually the goal.
I built this, which worked incredibly well (325 degrees F) but I feel it's severely limited by the use of tinfoil as a reflective surface.

I decided CDs would be a perfect substitute, they are more reflective, and I happen to have tons of them lying around. But my goal had never really been to create a solar oven, just to create heat from sunlight. So instead of improving my solar oven, I decided to build a parabolic solar concentrator.

Step 1: Materials

Picture of Materials

     Corrugated is harder to cut, thin cardboard will make it more difficult to attach the mirrors*
     (I used a thin corrugated cardboard)

-Tape or Glue
     Tape will partially cover parts of the mirrors, cutting down on the actual light reflected, but it allows for the mirrors to be more easily          removed and adjusted


-Box cutter/X-Acto Knife

*The mirrors are actually just pieces of the CDs, but it's easier to refer to them like this

Step 2: Preparing the CD Pattern

Picture of Preparing the CD Pattern

-Draw two parallel lines with the midpoint of each line touching the slightly raised inner circle of the CD
-Rotate 90 degrees, repeat.
-Connect the endpoints of the pairs of parallel lines

You should end up with 4 squares containing only reflective surface, nothing clear, a square in the middle, and some arc shaped pieces.
Only the first 4 squares are important.

This CD will become your guide for cutting multiple CDs at the same time.

Step 3: Preparing the CDs

Picture of Preparing the CDs

Tape the pattern CD to the top of all the the CDs you are going to cut.
Use at least 8 pieces of tape evenly spaced around the edges of the CDs.

I put the tape on the bottom CD, put all of the CDs on a spindle to make sure they were centered, and then folded the tape over.

Step 4: Cutting the CDs

Picture of Cutting the CDs

-Cut along all of the lines

You can cut them anyway that you think will work, just remember that friction from any sort of saw will create heat. I had to pry mine apart, but it was no big deal. I'm not sure how that would go with a power saw. (if you try, please share your results in the comments)

I put the stack in a bench vice and used a hand saw. Holding it together with clamps as well as using the vice will help prevent cracking.
When cutting on the curved surface, starting with a small hacksaw is much easier than starting with a large saw.
I started with a miter saw, but eventually switched too a hacksaw. The hacksaw had a slightly thinner blade than the miter saw and got stuck less often. It also never cracked a CD.

Step 5: Designing the Frame: the First Mirror

Picture of Designing the Frame: the First Mirror

Measure the sides of your most average CD square, then average them.
If you have a perfect square, Congratulations! 
I did not. My squares were about 1.5 inches per side, you will see that thicker cardboard helps to compensate for slight variations.

Draw a line this length in the middle of your piece of cardboard, parallel with and about an inch above a flat edge of it.

I first drew a center line and then went out half of the mirror length on each side of it.

This center line will be where the first mirror goes. Light strikes from directly above and is reflect straight up.

Step 6: Designing the Frame: the Second Mirror

Picture of Designing the Frame: the Second Mirror

Decide how high you want the focus of your concentrator to be.
I decided to make mine focus 12 inches above the center mirror for no particular reason.

With the knowledge of the focal length, the distance from the center to the edge of the last mirror "placed" (the last line drawn), and the difference in height between the center mirror and the edge of the last mirror placed, you can determine the angle the next mirror should be placed at.

The focal length will be f, this is constant. 
The distance from the center to the edge of the last mirror placed  will be d.
The difference in height between the center mirror and the edge of the last mirror placed will be h.
The angle of the next mirror will be 
                 90 - arctan ( (f - h) / d )

In the case of the second mirror, which is adjacent to the center mirror, d = half of the side length of the mirrors. h will be 0 (the last mirror placed is the center mirror).

For me this meant 90 - arctan ( 12 / 0.75 ) = 3.6 degrees

Whatever angle you get, starting from the edges of the center mirror, draw a line at that angle and mark it at the length of one of your mirrors, d.

Step 7: Designing the Frame: the Rest of the Mirrors

Picture of Designing the Frame: the Rest of the Mirrors

The rest of the mirrors are drawn in the same way. 
You may have realized that you could find the angle of every mirror mathematically, but measuring each time to find the values for h and d is more accurate because your drawing may not be accurate. This way if you accidentally draw a line at the wrong length or angle it won't affect any other lines.

So continue with
Angle = 90 - arctan ( (f - h) / d )

Until you get to the edge, or your desired height or width.

Step 8: Cut It Out

Picture of Cut It Out

Cut along the line. The bottom piece is now your stencil.
You will need at least two of these pieces for one row of mirrors. Each successive parallel row of mirrors will require one more piece of cardboard in this shape. The maximum number of rows of mirrors is equal to the number of sections on your pattern, each the length of your pattern.

Step 9: Assembly

Picture of Assembly

To assemble the frame, slot the cardboard at the edge of each mirror segment. Slot half of your pieces at the top, and half on the bottom.
Place the top pieces onto the bottom pieces, making sure the tops are flush. By doing so you make sure the pieces are angled correctly.

Finally attach the mirrors onto the square sections using either tape or glue.

Step 10: How Not to Cut CDs

Picture of How Not to Cut CDs

I thought a hot wire would be the perfect way to cut through these plastic CDs. I tested it with one CD, a piece of guitar string, and two lead acid batteries. Other than the CD catching on fire where it contacted the wire this worked pretty well.
With multiple CDs though, I broke multiple wires.


GGinn (author)2016-06-07

Great design, would it not be better to use an Aluminium foil as the reflectivity ratio is probably better compared to the CD.

Magnelectrostatic (author)GGinn2016-06-11

I always had problems keeping foil smooth, and it loses a lot of its use as a reflector when it has any crinkles in it. If you do any tests between the two, let me know!

Mylar works really well.

HarshaH1 (author)2015-09-30


katabillups (author)2015-09-06

GREAT! how do u put this to use???

cyberteknia2 (author)2014-10-26

Nice project.. I´ve made something similar with an old cable dish antenna and little 1"x1" mirrors. Works perfectly and I guess is a lot less work

Secret Solar (author)2013-02-02

Thats a cool poject man right on.

solaralternatives (author)2011-08-28

Discarded steel cans would be quite reflective, and nearly immune to heat or discoloration.. as would aluminum soda cans or the inside of mylar balloons. Even the inside of modern potato (or corn) chip bags.

I tried chip bags, I think it was difficult to smooth them out, or maybe it was something about the grease (or both). I haven't tried cans though, that's something I'll check out. And I would love to see how mylar works but I'm too lazy to go and get some...

its because there bendable :D

dhendricks3 (author)2011-09-19

That's a brilliant idea. I should try it sometime, I have load of extra CDs that I haven't been using anymore.

kretzlord (author)2011-09-12

my 2 cents, put a Thermoelectric generator (with a black heatsink attached to one side and a shaded heatsink on the other) in the focal area. Instant heat-to-electricity conversion. possible portable camp charger?

javajunkie1976 (author)2011-08-27

I'd like to see someone expand on your idea by mating this with a Stirling cycle engine. I know there are large commercial versions but I haven't seen any DIY versions. I can see someone who's into camping using something like this...

Imsosickxxx (author)2011-08-11

I think this is a great idea. After I return from Iraq I am considering expanding on this idea. I figure that if you are able to attain over 300 degrees. Then by taking a small satellite dish and the small mirrors from a disco ball that I should be able to compound the intensity to an exceptional degree...any words of advice or problems you ran into?

Actually, the 300 degrees was obtained from an oven I built based on this
I decided to build the concentrator because it's much easier to expand upon, hopefully will obtain higher temperatures and take less room, and won't catch on fire over 451 degrees F.
And to be honest I got distracted with other projects after finishing this instructable (so I haven't obtained particularly high temperatures), but I plan to go back to this and make it larger.

I had some slight alignment problems, but the use of a satellite dish should fix that. All I can think of is that if the center mirror is slightly off, the other mirrors may not be correctly aligned. I think the light would still focus, but the focus would move.
Good luck!
And make sure to say how it goes, those sound like great materials for this.

FennecCooper (author)2011-08-04

Voted for you on the competition. Best luck!


mgimbel (author)2011-08-02

you should have made a true parabola. If done properly you can use tin foil pulled tightly using a vacuum to make an adustable parabola.

Yes, but, how do you do it properly?

aaires1 (author)2011-07-21

It would be more sustainble if you cut the round parts in triangles and join 2 triangles to make a square. xD

That does seem like it would use a lot more of each CD, great idea.
Alas.... I am very lazy

also the curve would be smoother

bconway1 (author)2011-07-20

you could cut foam with the wire. its rather fun

Hmmmmm, if only I had something to make out of foam

Dollar Tree stores has Foam Board panels in the 18"X24" range (guessing on the size).
They are just right for making poster signs,etc. And from the looks of your project, would be the PERFECT mounting structure.

Excellent Instructable, THANKS!

That's a pretty great idea, and cutting (I think) would be a lot faster.
I may try this eventually....
thank you!

lemonie (author)2011-07-18

There's some nice work here, but what is this business about "Well really there's not much I can tell anyone online without getting raped? is there"?


I know this isn't 4Chan or anything like that, but it is still the internet. Gotta be careful out here.

BobCat (author)Magnelectrostatic2011-07-21

I believe s/he meant, "why did you make this offensive comment?".

It does not belong on instructables.

And, thank you.

ramses (author)2011-07-21

I would have bought that windows 2000 professional disk (with license) for like $20.

maewert (author)2011-07-21

Very nice 'ible.  As a kid (before there were CDs) I made a four foot diameter cooker using somewhat similar techniques.  I made a parabolic curve template and cut  cardboard vanes which met in the center which I attached to 1/4 inch think plywood panel.  To these vanes I glued aluminum foil (I can't recall what I used as backing on the foil, maybe duct tape) to the vanes.  The thing was a bit heavy for me and before I used it the first time I moved it into position and I backed away still facing the parabolic surface and said 'Whew" just as my mouth and ears were at the center of the parabola :-)  My quiet 'Whew" echoed back into my ears very loudly.  I had fun with this before ever collecting sunlight!  I think the parents destroyed it thinking it trash.  I never did actually bake anything with it.  You bring back great memories though.
Best Wishes.

SolarFlower_org (author)2011-07-21

I'm not sure how reflective CDs are, but you might be underestimating kitchen foil. It's actually very reflective, aluminium being second only to silver in wide spectrum reflectance. And maybe gold, but that's probably not very practical information.

If you really want to get this thing cranking, I'd approach your local printing company for some lithographic offset printing plates, they'll probably be scrapping several hundred of them a week, and they're pretty much pure alu, very very reflective and easy to work with. You can cut them with scissors.

Also, if you're going to be working with parabolic curves, for mercy's sake get a copy of Rhino3D or other cad package, and just print out your templates. It'll take you an hour to learn how (msg me if you have any questions), and then about two minutes to draw up any curve you want. If you're doing stuff with optics you really want this stuff precise, and sketching out curves with a slide rule is for suckers.

jokoh (author)SolarFlower_org2011-07-21

Reflective layer on the CD made of aluminium too.

SolarFlower_org (author)jokoh2011-07-21

Yes, but then messed with. It could well be that it's still highly reflective, but it could also be not, and your still only going to come back up to raw alu, which is what kitchen foil is to start with.
Plus there's a layer of plastic in the way.

The good thing about cds I guess is that they're nice and flat, whereas foil's a bit of a hassle to work with. I find double sided carpet tape makes a nice job of it tho, long as you aren't concaving the surface too much.

jokoh (author)2011-07-21

How many degree you get with CD ?

Jae the philosopher (author)2011-07-20

Very nice, this is a very brilliant contraption sir.

About This Instructable




Bio: An electrical engineer who likes to make things.
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