Solar Thermal Particle Panel





Introduction: Solar Thermal Particle Panel

I have been trying to figure out how to make a cheap solar thermal panel.  Like this instructable, I settled on plastic.  There is one BIG problem with making a solar thermal panel out of plastic. 


The problem, put simply, is that plastic solar thermal panels, if built like traditional solar thermal panels, cannot turn themselves off if they start to overheat. You cant just paint a plastic panel black and slap some glazing on it.  If you stop removing the heat from the panel, and the panel is built from plastic, it will soften or melt eventually. This was recognized by Rob in his instructable:

"because the whole collector is made of plastic, it is important that the temperature doesn’t get too high or it will soften and possibly spring a leak. 80 degrees C (176 degrees F) is about the limit. Don’t think it can get that hot? Think again. ...Therefore this may not be a practical design for residential installation"

The problem is figuring out how to make a solar panel turn off.  If you can figure this out, then solar thermal panels could be built of plastic and the cost reduced to a point where it is affordable to everybody. (i.e. $1000 per panel to $200) Why is this important? Because heating our homes (air and water) accounts for the majority of energy we consume in our homes.  If solar thermal panels were cheap, we could heat our house with them and save billions every year.

So this is where I am coming from.  I want to find a way to build a solar thermal panel from commonly available materials and have it compete with commercial systems.  The design I have come up with may be the answer, or it may not, but if the instructable community would work on this problem with me, the benfits to our society could be huge.

check out the blog I created for this idea for more info and for updates as I have them.

Blue Skies,


Step 1: Use Polypropylene, Not Polycarbonate

Until I have a chance to redo the figures (maybe in a week or so), to any users out there who wants to build this panel:

Don't use polycarbonate!

Turns out that this plastic degrades in long exposure to hot water.  Following up on some user comments, I checked out Coroplast, which is actually polypropylene plastic. long story short, coroplast is MUCH cheaper, MUCH more water-resistant (its used for plumbing) and easily recyclable.  Not even any question about what is the better option.

However, you will have to heat-weld the manifold because polypropylene does not glue easily. Read about it at Wikipedia.  Until I have the time to test this, and unless you want to give it a try, I recommend just thinking about this idea and coming up with more ways to make it better.  There is obviously a lot we can do!

Step 2: Get Your Materials and Tools...

I went through a number of failed attempts before building a panel that worked.  Unfortunately, the raw materials are not cheap because you have to buy them in bulk.  I have done this, and have lots of leftover particles and wire mesh.  If a reader out there would like to build one of these panels for themselves and does not want to buy the bulk materials, please contact me and I'll look into setting up an Ebay shop to sell the excess wire mesh and silicon carbonate particles I have.

You will need:

>double-wall polycarbonate sheet.  I used the 5/8'' but I think it would be better if you used the 1/4'' sheet. its cheaper and will probably work out better.  I found a local supplier for Macrolux panels.  You will have to find a local supplier.  They come in 4'X8' sheets.

>65 micron silicon carbonate particles.  The particles need to be about 65 microns, black, and as non-reactive with water or glycol as possible.  Finding these particles was a bit challenging because I needed them to be pre-sifted down to a very small size.  Silicon Carbonate is used in the abrasives industry and is available in 25lb bags.  You will only need a few cups, so contact me if you want to buy some of what I have left over.  I bought them here.

>40 micron metal mesh.  Again, the minimum order here is far more then what you will need.  Read this instructable and you will see how much you need, which will depend on how think your panel is. Contact me if you are interested and I can try to add some strips to Ebay.

>Acrylic plastic sheet or polycarbonate.  Again, read this instructable to figure out how much you need, as it will depend on thickness of panel.

>heat gun

>table or skill saw (not shown)


>metal sheet cutter

>plastic cement

>plastic epoxy

>masking tape

>a little funnel (or just make one)


Step 3: Cut the Polycarbonate Sheet to Size

I have tried cutting the panels with a table saw and a skill saw.  Both work.  I strongly recommend sacrificing a little bit of the panel to use for testing.  I think making 4 2'X4' pieces from a single 4'X8' piece is the way to go.

Step 4: Cut the Wire Mesh

Cut the wire mesh into strips about 3/4' wide with the metal sheet cutters.

Step 5: Bend the Wire Strip Over the Top of the Panel

This step is simply to secure the metal strip so it does not move around while you use the heat gun and screwdriver to melt it into the panel.  See (1) in the diagram in step 5.

Step 6: Melt the Wire Mesh to One End of the Panel

I tried quite a few other methods before settling on this.  Its actually really neat how it works and its simple. 

The idea here is to melt the wire mesh into the top of the panel.  I will describe this as best as I can, in reference to the diagram.  First, insure the wire mesh is bend around the panel (1).  Prop the panel up so you do not have to hold it.  Turn on the heat gun and let it get hot.  While pointing the heatgun at the the metal mesh (2), use the screwdriver to push the mesh into the panel by moving the screwdriver back and forth (3).  You will actually see the plastic permeate the mesh.  I strongly recommend you practice this on a few test pieces first. However, if you do screw up, you can always saw off the end of the panel and try again.  If you apply too much heat, the panel will bend inward a little bit.  This is OK as long as its not too severe because the manifold will wrap around the end of the panel. 

Once the metal has cooled on a test piece, try to peel the metal off.  It should be really hard to rip it off.  If it is, you know you did it right.

Step 7: Add the Particles...

use a little funnel to fill each channel with particles.  The wire mesh should be bonded to the bottom of the panel, so those particles should not escape.  I would wear a dust mask or ventilator here just to be careful.  I don't know if Silicon Carbonate particles are bad for you, but I would not want to get that stuff in my lungs.  I have two tips from my experience. 

First, use about 2 teaspoons if your panel is 4' tall.  I used 1 tablespoon and it was too much. 

Second, be sure to measure it fairly carefully so that all channels get the same amount of particles.

Step 8: Repeat Steps 3-5 for the Top of the Panel, Sealing the Particles In.

Repeat steps 3-5 for the top of the panel.  You should now have a 2'X4' panel of double wall polycarbonate with 2 teaspoons of 65 micron silicon carbonate particles trapped in the channels by two strips of 45 micron metal mesh melted into the top and bottom.

Step 9: Design Your Manifold

We now need to build the top and bottom manifolds.  This is how we are going to channel the water to flow through the at the bottom and out through the top.

What will follow are the steps I took to do this, but in the process I realized a way better way.  I would strongly recommend you not do what I did and skip to step 12 where I show you how to make a manifold in one piece.  If you are going to build this...innovate it!

Since I did not fully appreciate that I could just bend the acrylic, I cut strips of .2'' thick sheets and glued them together into a "C" clamp shape, as you can see from the magnified side view in the diagram.

Step 10: Cut the Acrylic Sheet Into Strips and Glue Them Together

Again, I recommend you invest some time into learning how to bend plastic.  It would be soooo much better.  However, here are pictures of what I did.  They are pretty self-explanatory.  I just cut strips of acrylic and glued them together with acrylic cement.

Step 11: Install Inlet and Outlet Ports

Unfortunitly I did not take a picture of this step, but I messed it up anyway.  If you are building the manifold like this, i reccomend you drill a hole in the front of the manifold, not the side.  The problem is that drilling into the side can cause the laminated acrylic strips to come apart.  I picked up these fitting from my local hardware section in the plumbing section.  Drill the holes, screw the fitting in, then take them out and coat it with cement and put them back in to seal them.

Step 12: Glue and Seal the Side Pieces

Cut some square pieces and glue them on the sides of the manifolds.  There will be a little gap between the panel side and the side piece.  This needs to get filled.  I used silicon sealant at first.  The problem with that is that there is very little air flow now inside the manifold, and the silicon takes forever to harden.  I ended up using a hot-melt glue gun, which took just a few seconds, hardened in 2 minutes and was good to go.  No waiting for the impatient (like me).

Step 13: Make a Better Manifold Then I Did!

I realized after I built this that there is a MUCH better way to do this.  Bend one piece of acrylic.  Less time, less gluing, less potential for leaks or mess ups.  I had no experience with plastics before I did this, but man there really is a lot of possibilities.

From what I have look into, you can buy a plastic builder or just make your own.  You have to build this wire heating element.   I found it for much less here.

Rather then seal the end with a glue gun like I did, I think it may be better to use a polyester resin.  However, I am not a plastics expert.  That's just what I am going to do for the next version.

Step 14: Admire Your New Panel

As you can see, my panel is not actually 2'X4'.  I went through many failed attempts before getting it to work, and I used smaller pieces so i could make the panels that I bought last long enough for me to get it right.  As it turned out, that was a good idea.  I went through five panels before I got the design I am showing you here.  So...learn from my mistakes!

Step 15: Test the Panel

Hook it up to a hose and see if it works.  Be sure to connect the input at the bottom.  The water needs to flow up through the panel.  When you turn the water on, the particles should spread out and turn the panel black.  When you turn off the water, the particles should settle and the panel should go black.  Why is this important? (See the intro.  Still don't get it?  Go to my website and read what I have there) 

There is a video of me testing my first panel here.

Step 16: Add Insulation

If you build a panel with no leaks, congratulations!  I say this because my first panel leaks a little bit, so I am not going to bother insulating it.  However, I think it should be easy.  Just put some foam on the back side and another sheet of double-wall polycarbonate on the front side, then wrap the whole thing in fiber glass.  There are tons of tutorial here, but stay tuned because I plan to do just this.



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    HI, I'm from philippines and energy cost is quite expensive. It's good to know that this kind of technology is growing. However, here in my country doesn't seem too interested on this. I want to build or make one for my own. I need your ideas about this, and I reckon if you could help me on this one.

    I saw this site and I need your inputs. I want to have at least one guide for now. Thanks in advance!

    In essence you need a door like object that is set to close when the internal temperature is too high. The door will shield the unit from sunlight thus allowing the unit to cool. I do warn people however that metal is to be trusted in building collectors. The flash point for wood could easily be exceeded in a solar collector and a fire on a roof is to be avoided at all costs.

    Here's a simple solution: Black tubing can stand in the field in the hottest summers for 10 years. Polygal [] is built as roofing material, is low cost, has a good insulation for the lower and higher layers, so that heat is not lost to the roof base or to the air above. Insert the tubing in the middle, and you have exactly what you wanted.

    7 replies

    What material exactly are you thinking for the black tubing? It's important that it be able to withstand the high stagnation temperatures associated with insulation, and Polygal, being polycarbonate, cannot. Since the black tubing will absorb heat continuously, this idea runs the risk of deformation of the polycarbonate panels or the black tubing (i'm assuming polypropylene). The stagnation temperatures of insulated panels can reach 150C. The upper working temperature of polycarbonate (Polygal) is about 120C and the melting temp of polypropylene is about 150C. I think your solution would work in most cases, but its the rare stagnation events that will melt it. If you lowered the insulation it could work, but then you get low efficiencies in the winter. Since im trying to make solar panels for space heat, this is a problem.

    In fact, there is an Israeli company that built for a large industrial project in Brazil, with EXACTLY Polygal. The hot water passes in standard (for Israel) pipes, and this has been field tested for over 25 years!! No risk of deformation whatsoever. (Polygal factory has roofs even older than that, never changed, and still with original form. The old clear ones get a bit "yellowish" over the years. The new ones are treated so that they should stay clear for 10 years and more. (Meanwhile 7 years strong). Tubing from Netafim - the guys that invented irrigation, because they didn't have enough pressure to work the sprinklers. Then discovered that it works much better... or Metzerplas from Kibbutz Metzer who copied the system: This stuff is out in the Israeli sun (and freezing cold in winter in the mountain and north areas) in the fields on all parts of Israel. Lasts at least 15 years. The black pipes sometimes reach almost boiling heat, pressure is given off through the irrigation holes. So simply add a few pressure guages that automatically open if the pressure is too high. Also use connectors at the bends, so that they serve as a "fuse" or circuit breaker in case of failure. You can easily fix that by inserting the connector back in.

    Thank you for the background. I have no doubt that polygal has been field tested, but I do question the conditions. If they have been used in thermal panels, then the panels were not well insulated. It is not simply a matter of opening valves to relieve pressure. Stagnation occurs when there is no water to pump and hence nothing to remove the heat out of the panels. The heat is "stagnant". Other brands of polycarbonate panels would likely work just as well. Its not a matter of brand, its a matter of the physics of plastic and solar thermal panels. If you want high efficiency in the winter, you run the risk of high stagnation temps. If you are seeing solar panels built in this manner then they are likely low-efficiency (or non-functional) in winter. The industry is looking at a few ways to solve the overheating problem, including manufacturing special plastics, transparent plastics that turn opaque when the exceed a temperature, interesting designs using the refractive properties of water, advanced controls systems and vents, etc. These links may help. Again, thank you for the comments.

    Its hard to read because instructables don't leave the spacing or formatting. [b] Let me try[/b] [br] or this another try
    I don't need you to show me the problem. Please understand that I ACTUALLY MANUFACTURED a system like this, after talking to the ENGINEERS at two companies, one of the Polygal (a two hour drive out to Kibbutz Ramat Hashofet).

    So let me explain once again: The Polygal is only the structure and insulation. The black piping is what takes the heat, and YES it has worked without failure for over 10 years! I'm not sure what happens when there is no water in the pipe. Seems to me the air heats up, builds up pressure and moves out the pipe, thus cooling it down.

    Your right its not a matter of brand, but that company treats its PC so that it is ready for roofing and roof conditions, and, as I stated, it worked already, and works for at least one company for many years. BTW take a look at this - no insulation at all...

    The inside of the PC is presumably in contact with the heat being generated from the black hose, which is stagnate if the water is not taking the heat away. Since heat rises, your venting mechanism is problematic if the panels are on the roof. Your previous post states that the hose reached almost boiling. Is this with or without insulation? I am assuming its without, since its irrigation...correct? As you say, the system in the video link you sent does not have insulation. Such a system may work in mild climates (its basically a pool about it on wikipedia), but its not going to work in the winter in northern latitudes for space heating, and definitely not DHW. Too much of the heat will be lost back to the atmosphere. Unless 1-5% efficiency is ok, which it is not for me. I am aiming for a system with 50% or greater efficiency. You can read a little about it here: You have not addressed the overheating problem. You seem to have it all figured out in your head. I would very much recommend you build your system and do two things. 1) measure the efficiency of the panels in the winter and 2) measure the stagnation temperature in the summer. If you really have solved the problem, there is a tremendous market for solar space heaters. Best of luck, and blue skies.

    Yes. I misread. I posted a second reply sending us to continue from ur blog.

    OK, sorry, I read the blog. Let's continue there. Your right about the winter (not much of a problem in my country, and the amount of insulation

    Just as a side, I was considering clear pipes and adding particles to the flow (there's a company that does exactly that - adding particles to (and removing them from) liquid flow for various industrial needs.

    This looks really interesting - great instructable! have you experimented with the minimum angle the panels can be held at before the particles settle on the sides of the channels instead of sinking to the bottom?

    2 replies

    Yeah, 45 degrees is about the limit. Any lower and the particles will just stick to the backside of the panel rather then sink down.  For my intended application, heating in the winter, this is ok. However for domestic hot water in equatorial latitudes, this clearly will not work.

    Oh that's not so bad; I live 54 degrees north :-)

    I'm not bound to build a panel using this method...
    So far it's been much easier using dorm room fridge radiators, and window glass.

    That being said, I do have an idea for your 'ible readers.
    I've recently built a CNC Guinea Pig cage.
    I used a white coroplast. however the sign shop I bout it from also carries the same material in clear.
    Advantages are, CHEAP... I think I picked up a 4x8 sheet for $25(though online can be much cheaper if you can talk your way out of shipping). Temp resistant. Well, it'll withstand 60PSI at 200F! So as long as you're using water to move the heat, all should be well.(melting is somewhere over 350F)

    This Place has some 'good stuff' rated for hurricane country. they even sell end caps, premade!

    6 replies

    that's a very good point.  Do you know if coroplast can withstand long term exposure to UV?  Anyway, definitely need to look into this.

    The reason i am attempting this is because I want to find a way to make a cheap solar panel that can be manufactured.  Smart tinkerers like yourself will always be ahead of the curve.  Its all the other people out there who cant do that, don't have the time, don't think they can, or just don't want to... but would go solar if it was cheap and easy.

    I don't have any long-term data on hand... but in the 3-4 year range, yes. ANY coroplast should resist UV just fine. Year old political signs still cut/weld/work like new stock...and that's with Chicago smog and salt!
    Long term, it MAY develop brittleness... not an issue if it's overglazed, like in your design.

    If it's a big concern, one of the optional coatings is UV resistance. don't remember which site, or which product, but the number was 98% light transmission, with "High" uva/uvb resistance.

    Just on a side note... Sonic welding is expensive, but best.
    Thermal welding works well too though.
    I mention this, cause you can cut a few inches on the bottom of the panel in half, Remove the top portion, sand the bottom smooth, form, and weld.
    If you're willing to sacrifice the outer most 2 channels... you can make your entire panel from just the one sheet! and if you do the thermal/sonic welding well, it'll never come apart!
    If that doesn't make enough sense... I could draw up a cut /weld diagram... but you probably got what I meant :-)

    that seems like a great idea.  How could I get that wire mesh in there? 

    as a side note a potentially better route could be to eliminate the wire mesh altogether.  It would be best if a separate box housed a filter, say right at the input and output ports.  The problem here is insuring that the particles mix.  The reason it works with the channels is because the flow pushes the particle to the top of the channel, causing an increase in resistance and decreased flow.  The flow is then diverted to another channel, increasing the flow and raising the particles.  meanwhile the previous channel has low flow, so the particle start to fall...  The whole thing make the particles spread out.

    The best solution I think is a design that lets the particles spread out while eliminating the problems with the manifold (via your technique, for example) and eliminating the wire mesh.

    "How could I get that wire mesh in there? "

    That is an issue I hadn't thought of...
    My solar heaters don't use an in-water heat absorber like yours does.

    I think it may be possible to change the U shape a little and still imbed it.

    Ironsmiters Changes.JPG

    this is a great idea.  anything that can be done to simplify the manifold reduces the cost and time of the design.  I guess the plus side is one less weld and the minus side is you have to sand off the cross-ribbing. 

    Actually, this is making me think that the thickness of the plastic I used in the manifold was super over-kill.  1/32 would probably do.  And that is already flexible.  I could bend it around and thermal/sonic weld it, then use polyester resin to fill the sides (while also puting an input and output port in).

    You seem to have some experience with sonic/thermal welding.  Any advice/pointers/urls I could check out?  I have set aside some money to develop this idea (not a lot, but certainly enough to invest in some reasonably-priced tools)

    I wouldn't use "experienced" to describe what I've done. :-)

    My experience to date is NOT with waterproof welding. Just structural.
    That being said, my work hasn't let the dust from pet bedding through, and I didn's SEE any leaks last time I washed the pan... So it MIGHT be waterproof. Just don't know.

    my "plastic welding torch". Was the cheapest piece of junk I could find that would still do the job, with my skills. If you have the cash, go for one of these.

    If you're budget is REALLY low, this was the cheapest one I've ever seen. If you're willing to practice and looks aren't too important, an old junky solder iron should do a passable job, as long as it has temperature control. The cheapest of the cheap iron-style plastic welders are set up like that. So much so, in fact, that most of them look like the seam irons that Hobby Lobby sells, for seamstresses.