Building Integrated Solar Thermal Electricity Generation (BISTEG)

Project: Research project


SCOPE OF WORK Objective. This project investigates a new device for generating electricity from sunlight. The proposed research will build an experimental prototype and establish: 1) the solar conditions under which the technology generates electricity, 2) thermodynamic efficiency and cost, and 3) the most effective thermocouple materials. Additionally, this project will contribute to the education of a diverse team of engineering students participating directly in the research and in a related seminar course titled Clean Technology Entrepreneurship for Engineers, including students from groups traditionally underrepresented in engineering including women, African-Americans, and Hispanics. Lastly, the project will contribute to public education through the production of a series of YouTube videos explaining the physics and operation of the device and the potential of the technology to expand the use of solar power. Description. Current building-integrated solar power technologies focus primarily on photovoltaics (PV) that are suitable for roof-mounted applications but are rarely used on exterior walls (i.e., the building faade), where aesthetic concerns dominate. Unlike PV technologies, the proposed research relies on a unique solar thermal technology that takes advantage of recent advances in thermocouple materials that generate electricity from temperature gradients. The proposed device is constructed of a glass block or small window pane, tilted upwards to trap direct sunlight in a small, partially evacuated chamber. Mounted on the back of this chamber is a thermocouple that generates electricity from differences in temperature. An array of these devices is then incorporated into a new building faade that can be used to retrofit existing building or be incorporated in new construction. The sunlight trapped behind the glass raises the temperature of the hot side of the thermocouple material, while the rear is maintained close to ambient temperature by air flowing from the ground (or below grade) thru a plenum space between the BISTEG faade and the building wall. Preliminary estimates suggest that the total electricity-generating potential of the BISTEG faade is comparable to that of existing PV panels on a per square foot basis. However, BISTEG is expected to offer an infinite pallet of colors or images that are viewable from ground level without interfering with electricity generation. An important advantage of the technology is that it allows a wider range of aesthetic choices that make solar electricity a feasible, cost-effective choice for buildings that do not currently exploit impinging solar insolation. Therefore, BISTEG is conceived to occupy a niche within the built environment that expands use of solar power and reduces existing cooling loads (thru improved exterior insulation). BISTEG supports the principles of sustainable development characteristic of the P3 program. With regard to people, it creates an aesthetic opportunity for public works of art that build or restore a sense of community or celebrate a shared cultural heritage. It creates a clean electricity technology that will displace older, more polluting technologies (such as coal or other fossil fuels) with renewable resources, thereby enhancing the planet. And with regard to prosperity, we expect the technology to ultimately reduce building costs, create new start-up businesses and contribute to the economic revitalization of blank building surfaces that otherwise blight the built environment. Finally, the project will contribute directly to the education and professional development of participating students and contribute to public understanding of science and sustainability. Results. The principal outputs of this project are the experimental BISTEG prototypes and data characterizing their performance under a variety of solar conditions using several different thermocouple materials. The principle outcomes of the project will be increased knowledge of building integrated solar thermal technologies, a reduced reliance on fossil fuels for electricity generation, prevention of the pollution associated with conventional electricity generation technologies and increased public awareness of solar power.
Effective start/end date8/31/158/31/15


  • US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): $15,000.00


Solar energy
Hot Temperature
Fossil fuels
Sustainable development
Environmental technology
Public works
Incident solar radiation
Technical presentations
Thermal gradients