Have you ever thought of how great it would be if all windows were able to conduct solar electricity? Well that fantasy might soon become reality, as a new transparent solar cell technology has been designed to harness the endless solar potential of building and car windows — even cell phones, and any other object with a transparent surface, for that matter.
I wrote about this technology a couple of years ago when it was still in its infancy, but now, scientists at Michigan State University have detailed in a paper published in the journal Nature Energy that these highly transparent solar panels could “nearly meet U.S. electricity demand” in just a few years and therefore reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.
How Soon Can We Expect to See the Widespread Use of These Solar Panels?
As associate professor of chemical engineering and materials science at MSU, Richard Lunt said in an interview with Newsweek, “We will see commercial products become available over the next few years. . . . We are just beginning to hit performance metrics that make sense to scale up.”
“Highly transparent solar cells represent the wave of the future for new solar applications,” Lunt continued. “We analyzed their potential and show that by harvesting only invisible light, these devices can provide a similar electricity-generation potential as rooftop solar while providing additional functionality to enhance the efficiency of buildings, automobiles and mobile electronics.”
How Does This Technology Work?
The beauty of this device is that the solar concentrator that harvests the light for power can be layered on top of a clear piece of glass without limiting the sunlight’s ability to pass through it. The perimeter of the cell contains small photovoltaic strips, which means it is basically a miniaturized version of a solar panel. These react with infrared light, which is invisible to the naked eye and produces solar electricity.
This system picks up ultraviolet and near infrared wavelengths and guides them to the edge of the surface of the glass they are on, where they are then converted into useable electricity by thin strips of photovoltaic solar cells.
The Most Amazing Part?
Ultra-thin, transparent solar panels could potentially be retrofitted onto skyscrapers and smartphones, which means existing windows and screens would not need to be replaced during this upgrade process and we could begin generating electricity from them relatively quickly. Just imagine all of those buildings, in all of those major cities across the globe, being converted into powerful hubs for clean solar electricity.
But efficiency still needs to be improved. Compared to regular solar panels, which boast about 15% efficiency, these transparent panels have only reached 5%. Lunt believes these panels are only about a third of the way to their full potential, however, and the work continues. The panels are not expected to completely replace existing panels, but rather, to be used alongside them to increase the amount of electricity generated.
Too Good to Be True?
Admittedly, initial manufacture of these cells will require a lot of electricity, and not necessarily from clean energy, but eventually that type of energy could be phased out. The windows of the manufacturing plants themselves could be turned into solar cells so the electricity they generate effectively powers the manufacturing process.
Imagine never having to plug in your smartphone because it’s literally powering itself at every moment. We might not be there yet, but it is possible.
“Ultimately, this technology offers a promising route to inexpensive, widespread solar adoption on small and large surfaces that were previously inaccessible,” added Lunt.
Want to See One of These Cells in Action?
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