Could This New Technology Lead Us Into A Gridless Future?
Imagine for a second your smartphone could charge itself with fully integrated transparent solar cells attached to its screen.
No cords. No cables.
A stand-alone, independent piece of technology.
Now imagine a whole city that powers itself on the same way. Solar energy exclusively.
We may actually be entering an era where this possibility isn’t too far off…
In August of 2014, researchers at Michigan State University unveiled a fully transparent solar concentrator. Headed by lead researcher Richard Lunt, this product is coming closer than any of its predecessors to bringing transparent solar cells to the market.
With this exciting new technology you could literally turn any window, computer screen, smartphone screen…or any other sheet of glass for that matter, into a photovoltaic solar cell.
Now, while this is not the first attempt at something like this, all others have failed rather dismally.
So what makes this system different?
Technically speaking, a transparent solar cell is a bit of a contradiction.
Solar cells produces energy by absorbing photons (sunlight) and converting them into electrons (electricity).
If the cells were transparent, surely the light will pass through them without absorbing anything?
Traditional “transparent” solar cells are not really transparent. They cast a colorful shadow when the light shines through due to the solar film covering the glass. This may not seem like a problem at first, but spend a few days in this environment and it may become less pleasing.
Lunt’s most obvious observations summed it up perfectly:“No one wants to sit behind colored glass, it makes for a very colorful environment, like working in a disco. We take an approach where we actually make the luminescent active layer itself transparent.”
Lunt and his team have taken it upon themselves to use a slightly different technique for gathering sunlight in order to get around this limitation. After all, the purpose of a window is to let light in…not make energy. With this design, you are able to do both.
Now you can have energy generation without any compromise in your visibility.
The glass itself is not a solar cell, but instead it has become a transparent luminescent solar concentrator (TLSC).
Full transparency is achieved through the use of small organic molecules developed by Lunt and his team.
The TLSC is made of organic salts tuned to only absorb ultra-violet and infrared energy – the kind of light frequencies which we cannot see.
The salt then emits light by luminescence at infrared frequencies which is picked up by the tiny plastic channels which line the edges of the glass. The infrared rays are directed to conventional photovoltaic solar cells which in turn produces the energy.
Due to the fact that this material does not absorb or emit light in our visible spectrum, they remain transparent to the naked human eye.
This revolutionary solar harvesting system opens up the door for all kinds of new solar innovations.
The prototype TLSC has currently received an efficiency rating of around 1%. Compared to non-transparent luminescent concentrators, which max out at 7%, this may seem poor, but with the current backing, many researchers and other interested parties have expressed their confidence that this will reach anywhere between 5-10% once production starts.
Are we perhaps on the verge of getting whole cities off the grid through informed exploitation?
Well, Lunt and his team are confident that transparent solar panels can be used efficiently in numerous settings: “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.”
When multiplied cumulatively by every piece of usable surface, it would seem that the possibilities for this new technology are nearly endless.