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A Race To Beat The Clouds

IBM cognitive forecasting technology predicts solar radiation and cloud movement, helping the University of Michigan's solar car at the 2015 World Solar Challenge.

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Our role in this race represents IBM’s commitment to creating technologies that can help individuals and organizations make better decisions--leading to running a business in a way that can transform industries.

Dario Gil, vice president for Science & Technology at IBM Research

Chasing the sun with cognitive technology

In the solar energy realm, nothing beats the drama and fun of the biennial Bridgestone World Solar Challenge, an 1800-mile race in solar-powered cars across the Australian outback. Teams from dozens of universities around the world compete for global bragging rights--combining precision teamwork with advances in software, electronics, materials and aerodynamic design.

For this year’s race, which will take place October 18 to 25, there’s an exciting new technology in play: cognitive computing. IBM Research scientists are collaborating with the University of Michigan’s solar car team to provide solar forecasting technology they hope will give the team’s car, Aurum, a decisive edge.

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solar camera

Staring at the sun

The best solar panel only converts about 20 percent of the sun’s rays hitting its surface into usable electricity. On a perfect day at sea level, that panel could generate approximately 200 watts of electricity per square meter. Introduce clouds, shade from trees, or dust in the wind and that power drops even further – making solar a variable energy source for the grid, or anything else powered by photovoltaic panels.

So, our physical analytics team at IBM Research built a basketball-sized and shaped camera that can predict solar radiation for the Department of Energy – and more recently, the University of Michigan’s solar car team.

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Solar data on screen

Measuring the sun

IBM Research hopes its short-term and long-range solar forecasts help the University of Michigan dodge clouds and find the perfect place to charge their car battery before sundown to enhance the chance that they win the race.

But the forecasting challenge we’re solving with cognitive computing could also impact the solar energy industry at large. Maybe solar powered mass transit someday?

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Meet the researchers

  • Hendrik Hamann, IBM Research

    Hendrik Hamann

    Manager, Physical Analytics
    IBM Research

  • Siyuan Lu, IBM Research

    Siyuan Lu

    Research Staff Member - Physical Analytics
    IBM Research

  • Xiaoyan Shao, IBM Research

    Xiaoyan Shao

    Research Staff Member - Physical Analytics
    IBM Research

  • Ted Van Kessel, IBM Research

    Ted Van Kessel

    Senior Technical Staff Member - Instrument Research and Development
    IBM Research

  • Leda Daehler, University of Michigan

    Leda Daehler

    Head Strategist
    The University of Michigan
    Solar Race Team

  • Pavan Naik, University of Michigan

    Pavan Naik

    Business and Team Manager
    The University of Michigan
    Solar Race Team

The University of Michigan Solar Car

Explore Aurum, the University of Michigan's solar car, and meet the students who are racing it across the Australian Outback in the 2015 Bridgestone World Solar Challenge. [here]





Here Comes the Sun: Why Forecasting Will Enable a Greener Energy Future

solar panelsFive years ago, a few of my IBM Research colleagues and I played a hunch. Large-scale solar power was taking off, but we realized that for solar to fulfill its potential for helping to produce a more sustainable energy future, it would have to be integrated into electrical grids. For that to work, you would have to know ahead to time how much solar power would be generated when and where. That realization spawned our solar forecasting research project.

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