See-Through Solar Could Turn Windows, Phones Into Power Sources
Wednesday, 07 Dec 2016

It's a whole new way of thinking about solar energy," says startup CEO about using transparent solar cells on buildings and electronics.
Source: https://goo.gl/m74RrO
See-Through Solar Could Turn Windows, Phones Into Power Sources

(Picture: Vladimir Bulovic (left) and Miles Barr (right), co-founders of Ubiquitous Energy, are making transparent solar cells that could eventually be placed on everyday objects such as phones and windows so these surfaces could produce energy. 
Photography by Justin Knight )

Anyone who has sweltered in a south-facing office during the summer knows the power of solar energy streaming through a window.

In fact, no reputable urban architect today would design such a workspace without treated windows to reduce the sun's glare and heat.

But what if the window coating could do better than keep out the sun? What if that thin film could capture the solar energy for lighting the office, running the computers, and best of all, firing up the air conditioning?

That's the idea behind "transparent" solar, a technology that startup companies hope to bring to market soon, after at least two decades of U.S. government-backed and university research.

With the help of organic chemistry, transparent solar pioneers have set out to tackle one of solar energy's greatest frustrations. Although the sun has by far the largest potential of any energy resource available to civilization, our ability to harness that power is limited. Photovoltaic panels mounted on rooftops are at best 20 percent efficient at turning sunlight to electricity.

Research has boosted solar panel efficiency over time. But some scientists argue that to truly take advantage of the sun's power, we also need to expand the amount of real estate that can be outfitted with solar, by making cells that are nearly or entirely see-through.

"It's a whole new way of thinking about solar energy, because now you have a lot of potential surface area," says Miles Barr, chief executive and co-founder of Silicon Valley startup Ubiquitous Energy, a company spun off by researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and  Michigan State University. "You can let your imagination run wild. We see this eventually going virtually everywhere."

INVISIBLE SPECTRUM POWER

Transparent solar is based on a fact about light that is taught in elementary school: The sun transmits energy in the form of invisible ultraviolet and infrared light, as well as visible light. A solar cell that is engineered only to capture light from the invisible ends of the spectrum will allow all other light to pass through in other words, it will appear transparent.

Organic chemistry is the secret to creating such material. Using just the simple building blocks of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and a few other elements found in all life on Earth, scientists since at least the early 1990s have been working on designing arrays of molecules that are able to transport electrons—in other words, to transmit electric current.

"The beauty of organic chemistry is there is a big variety of materials available," says Nikos Kopidakis, senior research scientist at the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colorado. "The sky's the limit. It can't be just anything, but we have a decent understanding of the requirements. You can design the material to look green to the eye, blue, any other color, or transparent."

Harvesting only the sun's invisible rays, however, means sacrificing efficiency. That's why Kopidakis says his team mainly focuses on creating opaque organic solar cells that also capture visible light, though they have worked on transparent solar with a small private company in Maryland called Solar Window Technologies that hopes to market the idea for buildings.

Ubiquitous Energy's team believes it has hit on an optimal formulation that builds on U.S. government-supported research published by the MIT scientists in 2011.

"There is generally a direct tradeoff  between transparency and efficiency levels," says Barr. "With the approach we're taking, you can still get a significant amount of energy at high transparency levels."

Barr says that Ubiquitous is on track to achieve efficiency of more than 10 percent—less than silicon, but able to be installed more widely. "There are millions and millions of square meters of glass surfaces around us," says Barr.

ORGANIC ADVANTAGE

Kopidakis notes that organic solar has another advantage over conventional silicon solar panels, which typically are manufactured by treating the silica in quartz sand in a high-temperature furnace. It requires far less energy to make organic solar coatings, and should cost far less once manufacturing is underway.

"You do not need an ultra-high-vacuum chamber, and you don't need to heat anything to 300 to 400 degrees," says Kopidakis. The solar material is deposited using a standard film coating process, all at ambient temperatures. Ubiquitous engineers are building organic photovoltaic structures 1,000 times thinner than a human hair.


Shayle Kann, senior vice president of GTM Research market research firm, noted the process cost advantage in a Reddit "Ask Me Anything" earlier this month. But he said may be hard for transparent solar companies to gain access to enough capital to ramp up manufacturing, when their product will be pitted against well-established, more efficient conventional panels.

Barr says Ubiquitous plans to prove its technology first on a small scale. The company's pilot production facility in Redwood City, California, is currently working with mobile device manufacturers to design prototype smartphones, watches, and other small electronics powered by Ubiquitous technology.

"We think providing battery-life extension and solving battery life problems will be a very good entry point for us," he said.

It's not yet certain when transparent solar-powered mobile devices will be available or what prices will be. But Barr says the Ubiquitous team doesn't expect the technology to change the cost of the mobile devices significantly. And don't look for a solar panel on your new sun-powered smartphone. If everything works out as the company hopes, the solar material will be an invisible coating under the glass over the device display.

"Ideally," Barr said, "it doesn't look like anything."

The story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.


By Marianne Lavelle, for National Geographic

Article originally posted at :National Geographic News 

More Articles

Renewable energy will replace old coal plants at the lowest cost!

Renewable energy will replace old coal plants at the lowest cost!

20 Friday 2018
One in five rooftop solar systems are deficient due to dodgy operators!

One in five rooftop solar systems are deficient due to dodgy operators!

26 Tuesday 2018
7 steps to reducing your energy bills

7 steps to reducing your energy bills

21 Thursday 2018
AICA Engineering awarded the Energy Efficiency Project of the Year Award for 2018

AICA Engineering awarded the Energy Efficiency Project of the Year Award for 2018

19 Tuesday 2018
Do you want to know how to better use your energy?

Do you want to know how to better use your energy?

08 Friday 2018
Solar energy may be the answer to solving Australia’s water shortage

Solar energy may be the answer to solving Australia’s water shortage

01 Friday 2018
WA homeowners are set to expect a 7% energy bill rise from July 1

WA homeowners are set to expect a 7% energy bill rise from July 1

30 Wednesday 2018
Almost half of Australian businesses have made the switch to solar

Almost half of Australian businesses have made the switch to solar

29 Tuesday 2018
As installation costs remain high why not invest in a more reliable solar system?

As installation costs remain high why not invest in a more reliable solar system?

22 Tuesday 2018
WA power plants are being shut off due to huge solar energy output

WA power plants are being shut off due to huge solar energy output

21 Monday 2018
Renters happy to pay more for properties with solar energy

Renters happy to pay more for properties with solar energy

16 Wednesday 2018
Australia could become the world’s first 100% renewable energy powered continent

Australia could become the world’s first 100% renewable energy powered continent

16 Wednesday 2018
Solar energy rebate changes could create big problems for old solar investors

Solar energy rebate changes could create big problems for old solar investors

11 Friday 2018
10 reasons why solar is the solution for you!

10 reasons why solar is the solution for you!

10 Thursday 2018
WA homeowners are to expect free solar installations and huge energy savings with new property developments

WA homeowners are to expect free solar installations and huge energy savings with new property developments

08 Tuesday 2018
Big business set their eyes on the future with groundbreaking investments in the solar industry

Big business set their eyes on the future with groundbreaking investments in the solar industry

07 Monday 2018
Australia’s solar boom set to supercharge the battery storage industry

Australia’s solar boom set to supercharge the battery storage industry

01 Tuesday 2018
Students set up an Australian first solar energy apartment block to halve their energy bills

Students set up an Australian first solar energy apartment block to halve their energy bills

30 Monday 2018
Set your sights on a renewable future with solar and battery storage technology

Set your sights on a renewable future with solar and battery storage technology

27 Friday 2018
The battle of the batteries: Which storage solution is best for you?

The battle of the batteries: Which storage solution is best for you?

26 Thursday 2018
Australia’s renewable energy capacity is set to exceed a target the Federal Government said was impossible to reach by 2020

Australia’s renewable energy capacity is set to exceed a target the Federal Government said was impossible to reach by 2020

25 Wednesday 2018
A WA suburb looks to trial a community energy storage scheme as energy bills are set to rise again

A WA suburb looks to trial a community energy storage scheme as energy bills are set to rise again

24 Tuesday 2018
The solar battery basics you need to know before getting off the grid

The solar battery basics you need to know before getting off the grid

24 Tuesday 2018
New poll on energy shows Australians want energy efficiency and lower bills

New poll on energy shows Australians want energy efficiency and lower bills

20 Friday 2018
Almost half of Sydney’s rooftops have the potential to be utilised for solar energy

Almost half of Sydney’s rooftops have the potential to be utilised for solar energy

20 Friday 2018

Request for Free Consultation