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Innovations in Solar Technology

Continuing research is focusing on improving and enhancing solar technology, and on finding ways to create the optimal alternative power source. The following selection represents recent solar power innovation and improvements for existing photovoltaic modules.

FUSION™ Solar Film

Developed by Genie Lens Technologies, this transparent film enhances the performance of photovoltaic panels. The polymer film contains microstructures that act in three ways to improve output: they prevent sunlight from being reflected off the panel’s surface; they redirect light to the semiconductors within the panel; and they effectively trap light within the panel to allow greater absorption by semiconductor materials. All three actions improve a solar panel’s ability to turn sunlight into energy.

The polymer film can be placed on the surface of existing solar panels or be installed during manufacture. Testing by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory has established that the film can improve a solar panel’s power output by 10-12.5%. With ease of application, the FUSION™ film can provide immediate benefits to any solar energy user, even in areas with limited light or extended periods of diffused lighting or clouds.

Flexible Solar Panels

Lightweight, flexible solar film is useful for both powering a home or business and as chargers for personal electronic devices. PowerFilm Solar has developed a unique and durable product that is also available in waterproof form. The thin, flexible material of these panels is suitable for use on tents, marine vessels, campers, cars, houses and businesses.

PowerFilm specifically targets sectors that require lightweight, durable products. Recreational, automobile, marine and military uses are prevalent as are uses within the field of disaster emergency response. The company’s low cost manufacturing process and ease of installation demonstrate that flexible solar films are an excellent option for anyone seeking an alternative to traditional cumbersome photovoltaic panels.

The production process creates a roll of flexible solar collection material that can be integrated with solid or fabric surfaces, or it can be given its own backing material. The process begins with a roll of polymer substrate to which layers are added to create the company’s unique product. The finished product makes use of monolithic integration to collect light and provide power, eliminating the need to connect individual solar cells within each discrete section.

These types of panels are an excellent investment for anyone who requires electricity while in rural or off-road areas, or for homes or businesses looking to get off the grid.

Solar “Sea Urchins”

Empa’s Mechanics of Materials & Nanostructures Laboratory is developing a radical new electrochemical process to derive power from solar energy. The process begins with the creation of polystyrene microspheres that resemble the shape of sea urchins. The 3D nanostructures are filled with deposits of semiconductive material; in this case, zinc oxide is used to create nanowires within the shells.

Once the nanowires are created, the microspheres are removed and the zinc oxide nanowires are ready for use. These formations can be installed in solar cells in place of silicon or other semiconductive materials. The 3D structure provides more surface area for sunlight exposure and power production. Polystyrene and zinc oxide are less expensive than silicon, which is generally used in solar panels. Thus, this process can create less expensive, more efficient solar cells.

Other uses for the “sea urchin” nanowire structures are for the manufacture of LED lights and other optoelectronics.

MIT Discovers Thermo-chemical Solar Power

MIT researchers are working to develop a new method of deriving power from solar energy. Traditional solar panels use the sun’s light to create electricity. MIT’s thermo-chemical process traps the sun’s heat and converts it to energy, or stores it for future use.  The current model uses ruthenium to trap and store heat, much like a battery. The heat is then released either as heat or as electricity by using a catalyst.

This form of solar power shows great potential for stability and long-lasting power. The solar battery is placed in the sun to charge, and then is used to power an appliance or piece of equipment. After use, the battery can be placed back in the sunlight to recharge. The portable aspect of this invention is an improvement over traditional installed solar panels.

While this project shows great potential, ruthenium is cost-prohibitive and the team is searching for a substitute to use in this process.

Carbon vs. Silicon Solar Cells

Current photovoltaic panels depend on silicon for light absorption and creation of solar power. As sizeable sheets of silicon are expensive to manufacture, solar panels are costly as well. Researchers are working on creating solar panels from another substance that is more abundant and less expensive: carbon.

Graphene, a form of carbon similar to pencil graphite, shows potential in capturing and releasing solar energy. However, the substance’s chemical properties create a “sticky” surface that bonds to anything it touches. Graphene sheets tend to adhere to anything they touch, including each other. Scientists are working to find a way to coat the sheets, preventing them from sticking to anything while allowing them to absorb the greatest possible amount of light.

As the project moves forward, scientists will integrate the coated graphene sheets into solar panels and determine the best method for extracting power from the absorbed light.

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