A parabolic trough is a type of solar thermal energy collector. It is constructed as a long parabolic mirror (usually coated silver or polished aluminum) with a Dewar tube running its length at the focal point. Sunlight is reflected by the mirror and concentrated on the Dewar tube. The trough is usually aligned on a north-south axis, and rotated to track the sun as it moves across the sky each day.
Alternatively the trough can be aligned on an east-west axis, this reduces the overall efficiency of the collector, due to cosine loss, but only requires the trough to be aligned with the change in seasons, avoiding the need for tracking motors. This tracking method works correctly at the spring and fall equinoxes with errors in the focusing of the light at other times during the year (the magnitude of this error varies throughout the day, taking a minimum value at solar noon). There is also an error introduced due to the daily motion of the sun across the sky, this error also reaches a minimum at solar noon. Due to these sources of error, seasonally adjusted parabolic troughs are generally designed with a lower solar concentration ratio. In order to increase the level of alignment, some measuring devices have also been invented.
Parabolic trough concentrators have a simple geometry, but their concentration is about 1/3 of the theoretical maximum for the same acceptance angle, that is, for the same overall tolerances for the system. Approaching the theoretical maximum may be achieved by using more elaborate concentrators based on primary-secondary designs using nonimaging optics.
Heat transfer fluid (usually oil) runs through the tube to absorb the concentrated sunlight. This increases the temperature of the fluid to some 400°C. The heat transfer fluid is then used to heat steam in a standard turbine generator. The process is economical and, for heating the pipe, thermal efficiency ranges from 60-80%. The overall efficiency from collector to grid, i.e. (Electrical Output Power)/(Total Impinging Solar Power) is about 15%, similar to PV (Photovoltaic Cells) but less than Stirling dish concentrators.
Current commercial plants utilizing parabolic troughs are hybrids; fossil fuels are used during night hours, but the amount of fossil fuel used is limited to a maximum 27% of electricity production, allowing the plant to qualify as a renewable energy source. Because they are hybrids and include cooling stations, condensers, accumulators and other things besides the actual solar collectors, the power generated per square meter of area varies enormously.