Next Gen Solar Panels – Fact or fiction?

 In Tech Tuesday

Transparent solar panels really are truly transparent.

There is lots of promises about next-gen solar panels and how they are set to turn all glass panes into energy collectors that will revolutionise the green energy industry. And it leads me to pose the question; are Next-Gen Solar Panels – Fact or fiction? How true are the promises and the speculation? Is it practicable to install solar panels in the windows of multi-storey office blocks? Will phone manufacturers install the glass in smartphones to charge the phone on the run?

According to experts, it is predicted that as early as next year that smartphones will be utilising this technology, and that not far behind will be computer screens, windows, and cars.

Scientifically, a transparent solar panel is something of an oxymoron. Solar cells, specifically the photovoltaic kind, make energy by absorbing photons (sunlight) and converting them into electrons (electricity). If a material is transparent, however, by definition it means that all of the light passes through the medium to strike the back of your eye. This is why previous transparent solar cells have actually only been partially transparent — and, to add insult to injury, they usually they cast a colorful shadow too.

To get around this limitation, the researchers use a slightly different technique for gathering sunlight. Instead of trying to create a transparent photovoltaic cell (which is nigh impossible), they use a transparent luminescent solar concentrator (TLSC). The TLSC consists of organic salts that absorb specific nonvisible wavelengths of ultraviolet and infrared light, which they then luminesce (glow) as another wavelength of infrared light (also non-visible). This emitted infrared light is guided to the edge of the plastic, where thin strips of conventional photovoltaic solar cell convert it into electricity.

If you look closely, you can see a couple of black strips along the edges of the plastic block. Otherwise, though, the active organic material — and thus the bulk of the solar panel — is highly transparent.

New technology means that TLSC solar panels are truly transparent because they collect nonvisable light waves

The prototype TLSC solar panel currently has an efficiency of around 1%, but they think 10% should be possible once production commences. Non-transparent luminescent concentrators (which bathe the room in colorful light) max out at around 7%. On their own these aren’t huge figures, but on a larger scale — every window in a house or office block — the numbers quickly add up. And while we’re probably not talking about a technology that can keep your smartphone or tablet running indefinitely, replacing your device’s display with a TLSC could net you a few more minutes or hours of usage on a single battery charge.

“It opens a lot of areas to deploy solar energy in a non-intrusive way,” Richard Lunt said in an interview with Michigan State’s Today blog. Lunt cofounded Ubiquitous Energy and remains the assistant professor of chemical engineering and materials science at Michigan State University. “It can be used on tall buildings with lots of windows or any kind of mobile device that demands high aesthetic quality like a phone or e-reader. Ultimately we want to make solar harvesting surfaces that you do not even know are there.”

While it all looks promising and the research is definitely moving in the right direction, I feel truly transparent solar panels that generate enough energy to make them cost effective are still a long way away and I call science fiction not science fact – but I could be wrong – and it wouldn’t be the first time.

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