Solar energy startup helps power Biosphere 2 and St. Anthony's Greek Orthodox Monastery; are Arizona highways next?

Jeff Kronenfeld

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David Vili, SolarSpace founder and CEO, at the Biosphere 2 near a SolarSpace M8 Dual-Axis Tracker.(SolarSpace)

By Jeff Kronenfeld / NewsBreak Pinal County, AZ

(Pinal County, AZ) Have you ever used a magnifying glass to start a campfire? If so, you’ve seen what concentrated solar power can do on a small scale.

Using the same principle, the company SolarSpace aims not to start a fire, but to ignite a revolution.

David Vili, the company’s founder and CEO, dreams of a future where E-stations using concentrated solar power replace gas stations and possibly even power plants.

Despite its grand scope, Vili’s vision grew from a simple goal: to help St. Anthony's Greek Orthodox Monastery in Florence water its plants.

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St. Anthony's Greek Orthodox Monastery in Florence.(SolarSpace)

SolarSpace’s sunrise

While the palm, citrus, and olive trees shading St. Anthony’s give it the appearance of an oasis, the monastery’s gardens, groves, and vineyards rely on water pumped from a well.

Vili, an immigrant from the country of Georgia, displayed an entrepreneurial spirit from a young age, a trait that hasn't ebbed with time.

For instance, while pilgrimaging at St. Anthony's in June of 2019, he couldn’t help but consider practical problems, like what happens to the plants if the power gets cut off?

The answer came when he took a trip to the Biosphere 2 and spotted an experimental solar power collection system invented by Roger Angel, a regents professor of astronomy and optical sciences at the University of Arizona.

An expert in producing gigantic, flawless mirrors for some of the world’s most advanced telescopes, Angel used his optical expertise to design an array of curved mirrors that focus solar energy onto a power conversion unit (PCU).

Vili realized the system would be ideal for meeting the monk’s power needs. So naturally, he visited the professor and asked to buy his invention. When told it wasn't for sale, Vili was undeterred.

“My answer was like, ‘why not?’” Vili explained. “Since that, we ended up getting the technology from U of A. We got an exclusive license for all the tech that they will develop for this specific application, and that's how we kind of got started.”

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A SolarSpace’s M8 Dual-Axis Tracker.(SolarSpace)

SolarSpace’s technology

The system SolarSpace acquired was more efficient than the flat photovoltaic panels seen commonly on houses and parking lots, but Vili and his team sought ways to improve it further.

Though the mirrors can concentrate enough heat to melt through a steel plate in seconds, this veritable death ray can also burn out a PCU. The U of A team developed a waterless cooling system to manage heat, but Vili worried about parts failing in the harsh desert environment.

His solution came from NASA’s Thermal Recovery Energy Efficient System, which converts heat into soundwaves and then into electricity. It took a little time to negotiate a deal, but Vili’s planning and persistence again won out.

“Now, we have no moving parts on the receiver, and the higher the temperature goes, the more energy we generate,” Vili explained. “On top of that, what it gives us is not only we can generate electricity, but we can also say, have an ice rink in the Sahara Desert.”

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A SolarSpace’s M1 Dual-Axis Tracker.(SolarSpace)

Current projects

SolarSpace used its now upgraded technology to complete Vili’s initial goal of powering one of St. Antony’s wells. Work is underway on expanding this production further, with Vili hoping to someday generate all the monastery's power using the Sun.

As previously reported, earlier this year, SolarSpace became one of the first four companies to participate in the University of Arizona Center for Innovation at Biosphere 2, a startup incubator focused on sustainable tech and renewable energy. Currently, four SolarSpace units are installed at Biosphere 2.

“That's pretty much our testbed there, because Biosphere 2 is absolutely the perfect environment for developing something new and testing it on their microgrid,” Vili said.

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(L to R) John Adams, David Vili, Kai Staats, U of A President Robert Robbins, and Tech Parks Arizona Associate Vice President Carol Stewart.(SolarSpace)

A brighter future

SolarSpace plans to create a demonstration of its off-grid E-station at Biosphere 2. These E-stations are the company's main focus.

“The EV revolution is happening, but the problem is going to be what happens if all of us get electric cars?” Vili said. “It’s a good thing to have, but we're going to kill the grid.”

Vili sees SolarSpace E-stations as a key part of the solution. The company plans to install these solar-powered microgrids at 50-mile intervals throughout Arizona and parts of California.

However, they could be far more than just places to plug in Teslas. For example, instead of using resource-intensive lithium-ion batteries with limited lifespans to store power, SolarSpace will use hydrogen.

“Our technology will give us the ability to not only charge electric cars, but also hydrogen cars,” Vili explained. “That's where the industry is going because electric cars are great for a smaller scale, but as soon as you get on a truck level or bigger engines, a fuel cell is the only way to go.”

After establishing a certain number of stations and optimizing their function, SolarSpace hopes to partner with local communities and existing businesses.

Eventually, the company would like to offer gas stations the chance to be retrofitted into SolarSpace E-stations using a franchise model. Yet, even further possibilities abound in the future.

“Microgrids could power towns, could power the Biosphere 2, or could power an E-station,” Vili said.

SolarSpace recently partnered with another startup called Molecule, which developed technology to generate drinkable water from humidity in the air. Even FEMA and the DOD are interested in SolarSpace’s innovations.

Biosphere 2 Deputy Director John Adams isn’t surprised by the buzz.

“We're excited to see where that goes for him,” Adams said. “I've got really high hopes that his vision will become a reality.”

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Jeff is an award-winning freelance journalist covering news, business, science and the arts. His work has been published in Discover Magazine, Vice, the Phoenix New Times and other outlets.

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