Where are we with solar power, what solutions can we expect and where is the technology going. Popular Mechanics takes a closer look.
In recent years solar power has become a fundamental source of energy for many individuals and institutions. But only a decade ago solar power was a niche item – a quirky gadget.
As solar power gains popularity, the panels become more affordable and more accessible, prompting many researchers and companies to look into it as a sustainable solution for energy, especially in the fields relating to energy harvested from the sun. These include photovoltaics and concentrated solar power.
Today we’re seeing large companies built around solar power advancement. And more cities adopting it as an alternative source of energy – moving away from nuclear energy and fossil fuels. This is especially important as population increases demand more power.
A variety of large-scale projects are cropping up all over the globe, promising high volume sustainable energy solutions. But here’s a look at advances that aim to help with smaller scale power needs.
Today there are hundreds of solar power alternatives to cater for existing energy needs – and the options are ever growing. While rooftop solar panels have been in use for some years, not everyone has the roof – or wall – space to harvest solar power.
One solution that has seen a lot of research is integrating semi-conducting materials with glass. This could allow windows to harvest electricity. A problem that arises here is that while photovoltaic hardware requires light to work, silicon panels are black and not well suited for use on windows.
An example of this research in this field is quantum dots. Published in 2015, the study looks at using copper, indium and selenium, covered with a layer of zinc sulphide to absorb light across a range of spectrums. What sets this research apart is the fact that it still allows light to enter through windows.
Another solution that focuses on windows as a solution for solar energy is Physee’s PowerWindow. The company integrated small solar panels on the edges on a window inside the frame. Although this solution produces a smaller amount of power than covering an entire window would, it has the advantage of remaining transparent.
Solar Window Technologies is yet another company that is looking to windows to solve our biggest energy problems. The company’s glass panels have solar panels inside the glass. They’ve also mastered the art of keeping the panels light enough to allow light to enter a building.
When looking through a SolarWindow it seems as if the glass has a slight green-grey tint to it – much like sunglasses – but the outside is completely clear.
Storing solar power
Now the question remains: once we harvest this energy, where do we go with it? A multitude of companies have started developing solutions for homeowners and institutions to store power and access it as needed. You’ll even be able to use this energy for your car.
The best known of these is Tesla’s Powerwall – a 122-kilogram battery first unveiled in April 2015. Powerwall offers homeowners a solution to not only store, but also access the power stored from panels. The Powerwall would serve as both an off-grid power solution and a back-up solution in case of utility outages or natural disasters.
What does the future hold?
With some predicting Tesla will be a “game-changer” for clean energy, there are components with promising alternatives that will aid in overall power sustainability.
Last year the Washington Post reported on an emerging solar cell known as the perovskite solar cell. This cell is reported to equal (and maybe even better) efficiency to the traditional silicone cell, but costs much less to manufacture.
Other solutions look at flexible panels and solar ink that can move and change with our needs and uses.
A brief history of solar power
The sun has been acknowledged as a source of power centuries. Here are some of the key milestones of solar power:
7th century B.C.: Magnifying glass concentrates the sun’s rays and make fire.
3rd century B.C.: The Greeks and Romans used mirrors to light torches.
2nd century B.C.: History writes the Greek scientist Archimedes used reflective bronze shields to set fire to a fleet of wooden Roman ships.
20 A.D.: Mirrors are used to light torches in China.
1767: Swiss scientist Horace de Saussure is credited with building the world’s first solar collector. Sir John Herschel’s expedition in South Africa in the 1830’s used this system was used to cook food.
1839: Father of the photovoltaic effect, Edmond Bequerel observes this effect for the first time when exposing an electrode in a conductive solution to light.
1873: Willoughby Smith, an electrical engineer, finds that selenium shows photoconductivity. This discovery would prove to be the key to future research.
1877: W.G. Adams and R.E. Day observed the photovoltaic effect in solidified selenium and subsequently published a paper on the selenium cell.
1883: Anticipating the scarceness of coal, inventor Charles Fritts created the first working selenium – or solar – cell.
1884: Fritts installs the world’s first solar array on a New York rooftop.
Following the 19th century advancements in selenium and photovoltaic research, the 20th century saw increased investment in research and development around turning light into energy.