Monday, 7 December 2009

Brothers, Cornell grads develop solar powered heating tubes

From the simple educational products they created in their basement more than a decade ago to their expansion into home heating, sunlight has always been part of the Farrell brothers' vision. Now the solar thermal products of Silicon Solar, the Ithaca-based company Cornell University graduates Adam and Matt Farrell founded, will be heating water for the 608-bed Wallkill Correctional Facility near New Paltz in the Hudson Valley. The installation of their company's solar thermal heating tubes, which will use sunlight to heat water for the prison, is a milestone for them, said Adam Farrell.

The brothers' heating tubes also are being installed in 10 Tompkins County locations, primarily residences, he said. "We wanted to show that solar thermal is economical, feasible for municipal use and practical," Adam said. Their company began in their Sidney home during their high school years, Adam said. They built small educational kits, some of which involved solar cells, which convert sunlight to electricity. "Our original mission was to provide affordable educational solutions to students, teachers and universities," he said.

Through the turn of the century, their college years and beyond, the business expanded as they created a Web site and began to craft solar-integrated products like solar lights, fountains, solar panels, solar energyed batteries and power supplies for small appliances, he said.

Then one sunny day, he saw steam coming off the deck of his house, Adam said. "We said, 'What about hot water?'" Adam said. Though initially reluctant, they ventured into solar thermal in 2005. While it was a steep learning curve that forced changes to their infrastructure, "solar thermal was an obtainable goal for us," he said. "We've really focused our company's resources on solar thermal in the last two years," he said.

Their heating pipes, made from two layers of borosilicate glass separated by a vacuum, contain a glycol-water solution with a low boiling point, Adam said. Sunlight heats the solution, the heating pipe transfers heat to a manifold, and the manifold heats water in a separate pipe for cooking, washing or space heating systems. "From a liability standpoint, it's a very safe system," he said.

In the Wallkill project, heated water will travel about 290 feet from their system to the prison water supply. Since some solar radiation is always hitting the Earth, the system is always working, Adam said. "Wind, cloudiness or rainy or snowy conditions do not affect the collectors," he said. "Only the intensity of the sun affects it." The pipes are made at their Bainbridge facility. The brothers moved their headquarters - - which includes marketing, sales and administration - - from Bainbridge to Ithaca in March.

The headquarters is located in offices on Catherwood Drive near the Pyramid Mall. Most of their staff went to Cornell, Adam said. "We're an information-based, tech-intensive industry," he said. "We're taking advantage of the area's brainpower. The people here are doing what they want to do. Our employees are all passionate about solar energy." As is Adam. "I like the sun, and I love solar technology," he said. "It's fascinating. The opportunities are endless, in terms of new ideas and technologies." "We're committed to building the Ithaca community," he said. "We want to make Ithaca the solar thermal capital of America."