“I like to be useful, it’s just the way I am”: Interview with Cristoforo Benvenuti

Cristoforo Benvenuti knows a lot about CERN, having been here since 1966. He also knows an awful lot about vacuum technology and getters, which he developed for ISR, LEP and LHC at CERN and which is an integral part of the revolutionary new solar panels he has invented. Now in industrial production, a first batch of panels will be delivered to Geneva Airport this week (see the CERN Press Release). Cristoforo Benvenuti, now retired from CERN but vice-president of the company producing the panels, SRB Energy, spoke to the Bulletin about solar panels and other energy projects he has up his sleeve.


Cristoforo Benvenuti with one of his solar panels.

Why are your solar panels particularly suited to use in Geneva?

In Geneva, 50% of the light is diffuse, because of the weather. Normal solar panels just wouldn’t produce enough energy. So you need panels like ours, which are the only ones with additional technology: the combination of the vacuum to improve insulation and the cylindrical mirror to reflect the diffuse light which a standard parabolic mirror cannot collect.

Is there any problem putting solar panels on the roof of the airport?

We anticipated two issues, but neither in fact pose any difficulties. The airport authorities did tests for 6 months to see if pollution from planes would reduce productivity and it doesn’t. Also, there used to be concerns about light reflecting off the panels disturbing air traffic, but the geometry of our mirrors means that all the light they reflect goes to the back of the panel. So no light escapes in any direction.

You have been inventing and developing technology all your life, do you have any other ideas in the pipeline?

Through my work on the solar panels, I have come to realise that vacuum could also be used to save energy. It’s more economical to save energy than to produce it.

So if you take one of our solar panels and remove the absorber, you essentially have an extremely well-insulated window. It would require some modification to make a working model, but I know how to do it.

Then think about walls: instead of using 20 cm of thermal insulation material like one does now, vacuum insulation needs only 1cm of space. In places like London, Paris and Tokyo, where the square metre costs a fortune, simply the gain in space has an economic value, and then there are the energy savings. I could produce vacuum insulation for walls tomorrow, but this has a cost.

What is your experience with finding investment to support your projects?

It’s very hard to convince somebody to invest money based on an idea alone. You need a demonstrator and a business plan. The problem is that it takes 2-3 years work to develop that, and this work needs to be funded too.

by Joannah Caborn Wengler