The future of solar is changing – and while we come from a history of improving technology, our growth and performance rates have accelerated over the past 25 years. From thin cell technology, concentrators, flat film, and now the organic realms, the science and applied physics of this area of development is moving so quickly it is almost impossible to keep up with every discovery and advancement.
As you can see – we began with technology whose efficiency ranked between 1.5% and 14% in 1976. In 2014, we are seeing daily record-setting announcements of cells with 44.7% efficiency. The casual consumer could purchase solar cells with a 13% production rate – but now we can mount panels of 25-26% efficiency on our homes and build even bigger, more efficient solar farms. Considering the fact that the planet earth is one giant solar collector, snatching up a quarter of it for our personal usage seems like such a small thing to ask.
Transparent solar collectors, spray-on solar cells, and thin-film technology has become the recent focus – not because we need more diversity amongst solar, but because developed nations have literally hundreds of thousands of miles of glass on buildings, vehicles, parks, etc. that could be used as multi-purpose surfaces: be aesthetic, admit light, and produce energy. We even put glass on our computers, our TVs, our mobile technology – but what if we could both be consuming and creating all at the same time? Up until the last year or so, we have been looking at traditional technology that absorbs visible light in order to produce electricity. Recently, MIT’s Energy Initiative has taken a different view – what if we created solar technology that was powered by invisible light wavelengths? Especially negative ones such as UV and IR? Then, your cell phone’s screen could be charging its own battery while you played games, surfed the internet or just enjoyed a cup of coffee with your cell phone screen facing the sun on the table beside you. While initial surveys of efficiency are low – opaque thin films are producing at around 7% and transparent cells at 2% – if we give the technology the same kind of time and funding we did to other cell technologies, we will be seeing dual-paned windows with electricity producing e-coatings and electric cars trickle-charging themselves soon enough.
One of the narrow fields of solar development that is exploding exponentially in the last ten years is organic photovoltaic. While an odd combination of words, what it represents is something really powerful. One of the challenges of assembling solar panels for consumers is the fact that each one is laden with what is called ‘rare earth’, or super-limited, super-rare elements. China has, until very recently, controlled 97 percent of global rare earth production – and are still the only re-claimer and recycler for 70 percent of electronic and technological waste. The thinking behind organic PV is limiting the number of rare earths and highly toxic elements and chemicals loaded into traditional photovoltaic cells so that they are more ‘green’ in the long-term then their traditional equivalents. They are also more complex, and as of right now far less efficient – producing with efficiency ratings between 10-12%. The good news is that their growth pattern indicates they will reach ‘common’ consumption rates of 25% within the next 5-10 years as well. In addition, we’ve developed organic solar ink which performs incredibly under fluorescent lighting – up to 40% better than normal organic films – and might be a coming technology for indoor and mixed uses.
Carbon nanotubes and solar thermophotovoltaic (STPV) has felt like a dead end in the world of solar technology for some time – a grandiose pipe dream of making solar cells that are functionally different from silicon and yet more effective against a wider spectrum of light wavelengths and can process heat as well as light. An MIT research team has come light-years closer to this reality then was ever previously hoped for by combining the carbon nanotubes with a layer of photonic crystals. The nanotubes absorb light, generate heat and radiate it in a spectrum visible to the crystals, thereby generating electricity with stored heat energy. Scientists speculate that a STPV system, comprised of more traditional photonic cell technology combined with STPV heat emittance, could reach a maximum efficiency of as much as 80% – blowing away traditional, stand-alone silicon PV.
Every nation is facing rising demands for providing energy – yet solar energy on a personal level is easily achievable for those that want it; clothing and backpacks are manufactured with built-in solar panels for charging personal electronics, and cell phone cases can be bought online or self-made that perform a similar function. Most local utilities have sponsored solar initiatives that have made it affordable and fast to get your own home powered by electricity you generate. Solar generating systems for camping, RVing, golfing, hunting, and more are becoming commonplace. As mentioned before, solar ink and advanced printing technology means that manufacturers can literally print out sheets of energy-producing wafers.
According to history, both Nikola Tesla and Albert Einstein had ideas, theorems, and understandings about harvesting power or energy from the sun – and how it could change our future. Tesla patented an ‘apparatus for the utilization of radiant energy’ in 1901; Einstein published “On a Heuristic Viewpoint Concerning the Production and Transformation of Light” in 1905 (the same year he released his papers on the theory of special relativity) for which he won a Nobel Prize in 1922. The Bell Labs demonstrated an early-model ‘high-power’ silicon PV cell at their labs, using it to power a toy Ferris wheel.
What does all this mean for the future of solar energy? To judge by NREL’s graph of our growth and expansion of the technology, it means we are nowhere near complete understanding or utilization, and that our race up technology’s slope has just begun. Demand is rising, the supply of rare earths is declining; somewhere in between we will find a middle ground that will see us producing the tools we need to make personal energy independence a reality. And in the meantime, we can enjoy the fruits of our solar-labors, like:
Solar Powered Toys
And Solar Powered Lawn Ornaments
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This is an original article written by Mai Bjorklund for Swartz Electric. This article may not be copied whole or in part without the express permission of Swartz Electric, LLC.
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