This floral fabrication may look luxurious, but in fact it has a rather down-to-earth aim: to take renewable energy and warm water to remote, off-grid communities.

The 10-metre structure is designed to fit, when folded up, into a single shipping container. Once it unfurls, though, it becomes a sun-tracking device that can clean water, generate electricity and even heat or cool buildings.

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Such functionality is a result of the solar cells it employs. Its water-cooled solar panels, developed by Bruno Michel at IBM, concentrate the sun by 2,000 times. From their, 25 PV chips are cooled by water, which flows though micro-channels beneath them—leaving the cells at the optimal operating temperature to generate electricity.

The warm water can be used to run a desalinator, driving seawater through a polymer membrane to produce up to 2,500 litres of fresh water ever day. Or, away from the sea, it can drive a water purifier to rid H20 of other unwelcome contaminants. All that, plus 12 kilowatts of electricity and 20 kilowatts of heat to boot.

The good news is that it's cheap, too: the solar mirrors, usually made from glass, are constructed from metallized foil like in chip bags. Already being tested in prototype form, it's expected to see final testing in Morocco and India before going on sale in 2017. Then, it will bring a little more civilization to even the most remote parts of the world. [New Scientist]

Image by Airlight Energy