It looks like something cooked up in the mind of a Bond villain, but there’s nothing malicious about the house-sized frame and tangle of reflective mirrors located behind the University of Arizona’s Bear Down Gymnasium. Rather than a futuristic gun designed to destroy the moon, the structure is actually a solar thermal collector–a 10 foot by 10 foot device designed to follow the sun across the sky–and could put us on the fast track to cheaper solar energy.

Unbeknownst to many of us, the University of Arizona has already cooked up quite a reputation for itself as a mirror expert. It’s home to the Steward Observatory Mirror Lab which makes giant, lightweight mirrors for a new generation of optical and infrared telescopes. Thanks to a $1.5 million grant from the Department of Energy, it seems that that same expertise will now be applied to energy generation.

The solar thermal collector, which is mounted onto a swiveling post in the concrete bottom of an empty swimming pool, supports two curved, highly reflective glass mirrors. It’s an innovative configuration that could optimize solar thermal energy for cost-efficient mass production. In recent test runs, the prototype module generated 2.5 kilowatts of electricity, enough to meet the power demands of two average U.S. households.

“Most mirrors used in solar power plants are used for thermal generation by focusing light onto a long pipe used to heat water into steam,” said Roger Angel, Regents’ Professor of Astronomy and Optical Sciences and director of the Steward Observatory Mirror Lab. ”This requires the mirrors to be shaped like a cylinder. What we have learned here at the Mirror Lab is how to bend the glass to high accuracy so as to focus to a point or a line.”

Through a partnership with Rioglass Solar, an Arizona company that specializes in cylinder-shaped mirrors, researchers have already patented their design. The collector’s mirrors focus sunlight onto a 5-inch glass ball and from there to a small array of 36 highly efficient photovoltaic (PV) cells, developed originally to power spacecraft. They convert a broader range of the solar spectrum into electricity than regular cells. A unit of fans and radiators – not unlike the cooling system in a car – is attached to the solar cell array, keeping them about 36 degrees Fahrenheit above ambient air temperature.

The collector’s automated tracking system does the rest, waking itself up to the sunrise in the East, and following the sun across the sky until it sets in the West. Angel said an array of sun trackers on an area measuring about 7 miles by 7 miles would generate 10 Gigawatts of power during sunshine hours.

Photo Credit: Blake Coughenour/University of Arizona