Tensile solar panel
Tensile structures have long been a fascination to architects, as they combine very light-weight construction with exquisite design. Now, an inspiring team of architects, automotive experts and engineers have come up with a remarkable idea: a hybrid car that recharges its batteries by solar power.
This solar canopy is more than just a great idea. What really makes the Volvo concept stand out is the lightweight, tensile structure that covers the car like a solar shell.
The idea is called the ‘PURE Tension’ Volvo Pavilion. It’s the result of close cooperation between Synthesis Design + Architecture, Buro Happold and Fabric Images. The canopy was conceived as a light, rapidly deployable and free-standing tensioned membrane that acts as a mobile charging station for the car.
At rest, the car unfurls a large solar cell canopy into a shape that architects will recognise from the work of Frei Otto. His tensile structures, of which perhaps the 1972 Munich Olympic Games stadium is the best-known, have captured the imagination of designers for their mathematical efficiency and elegance. The same principle applies here, with similarly beautiful results.
The pavilion is made of an immensely strong carbon fibre tube ring that bends into the required surface. The shape stands like a tripod, on three points, around the vehicle. It is shaped by the tailored and flexible skin that keeps it in place. As the skin pulls on the structure, the frame pushes back, and the shape is formed in the balance between the two. This equilibrium manifests in a lightweight and easy to assemble structure with some resemblance to the two-second tents that can be seen at any campsite.
The meshing used as the skin is made of perforated HDPE. The perforations increase flexibility and reduce strain, so the skin is kept supple. To develop the surface and structure, the designers used models made of substitute materials, alternated with digital shaping techniques.
The principle used for the skin is called dynamic mesh relaxation. A range of solar panels were embedded into the skin in optimised positions to help charge the car. At present, this would take about 12 hours, but as research continues and the charging time drops, we may see solar charging pavilions on cars sooner than we think.