Powered by the Sun: Efficiency Records and Future Trends

solar_panelThere have been many new developments in the field of solar technology lately, thanks to new waves of innovation and the ongoing drive to make the technology cheaper and more efficient. At the current rate of growth, solar power is predicted to become cheaper than natural gas by 2025. And with that, so many opportunities for clean energy and clean living will become available.

Though there are many contributing factors to this trend, much of the progress made of late is thanks to the discovery of graphene. This miracle material – which is ultra-thin, strong and light – has the ability to act as a super capacitor, battery, and an amazing superconductor. And its use in the manufacture of solar panels is leading to record breaking efficiency.

graphene-solarBack in 2012, researchers from the University of Florida reported a record efficiency of 8.6 percent for a prototype solar cell consisting of a wafer of silicon coated with a layer of graphene doped with trifluoromethanesulfonyl-amide (TFSA). And now, another team is claiming a new record efficiency of 15.6 percent for a graphene-based solar cell by ditching the silicon all together.

And while 15.6 efficiency might still lag behind certain designs of conventional solar cells (for instance, the Boeing Spectrolabs mass-production design of 2010 achieved upwards of 40 percent), this represents a exponential increase for graphene cells. The reason why it is favored in the production of cells is the fact that compared to silicon, it is far cheaper to produce.

solar_power2Despite the improvements made in manufacturing and installation, silicon is still expensive to process into cells. This new prototype, created by researchers from the Group of Photovoltaic and Optoelectronic Devices (DFO) – located at Spain’s Universitat Jaume I Castelló and the University of Oxford – uses a combination of titanium oxide and graphene as a charge collector and perovskite to absorb sunlight.

As well as the impressive solar efficiency, the team says the device is manufactured at low temperatures, with the several layers that go into making it being processed at under 150° C (302° F) using a solution-based deposition technique. This not only means lower potential production costs, but also makes it possible for the technology to be used on flexible plastics.

twin-creeks-hyperion-wafer-ii-flexibleWhat this means is a drop in costs all around, from production to installation, and the means to adapt the panel design to more surfaces. And considering the rate at which efficiency is being increased, it would not be rash to anticipate a range of graphene-based solar panels hitting the market in the near future – ones that can give conventional cells a run for their money!

However, another major stumbling block with solar power is weather, since it requires clear skies to be effective. For some time, the idea of getting the arrays into space has been proposed as a solution, which may finally be possible thanks to recent drops in the associated costs. In most cases, this consists or orbital arrays, but as noted late last year, there are more ambitious plans as well.

lunaring-3Take the Japanese company Shimizu and it’s proposed “Luna Ring” as an example. As noted earlier this month, Shimizu has proposed creating a solar array some 400 km (250 miles) wide and 11,000 km (6,800 miles) long that would beam solar energy directly to Earth. Being located on the Moon and wrapped around its entirety, this array would be able to take advantage of perennial exposure to sunlight.

Cables underneath the ring would gather power and transfer it to stations that facing Earth, which would then beam the energy our way using microwaves and lasers. Shimizu believes the scheme, which it showed off at a recent exhibition in Japan, would virtually solve our energy crisis, so we never have to think about fossil fuels again.

lunaring-2They predict that the entire array could be built and operational by 2035. Is that too soon to hope for planetary energy independence? And given the progress being made by companies like SpaceX and NASA in bringing the costs of getting into space down, and the way the Moon is factoring into multiple space agencies plans for the coming decades, I would anticipate that such a project is truly feasible, if still speculative.

Combined with increases being made in the fields of wind turbines, tidal harnesses, and other renewable energy sources – i.e. geothermal and piezoelectric – the future of clean energy, clear skies and clean living can’t get here soon enough! And be sure to check out this video of the Luna Ring, courtesy of the Shimizu corporation:


Sources:
gizmodo.com, fastcoexist.com

News From Space: Luna Rings and Spidersuits!

space_cameraSpace is becoming a very interesting place, thanks to numerous innovations that are looking ahead to the next great leap in exploration. With the Moon and Mars firmly fixed as the intended targets for future manned missions, everything from proposed settlements and construction projects are being plotted, and the requisite tools are being fashioned.

For instance, the Shimizu Corporation (the designers of the Shimizu Mega-City Pyramid), a Japanese construction firm, has proposed a radical idea for bringing solar energy to the world. Taking the concept of space-based solar power a step further, Shimizu has proposed the creation of a “Luna Ring” – an array of solar cells around the Moon’s 11000 km (6800 mile) equator to harvest solar energy and beam it back to Earth.

lunaringThe plan involves using materials derived from lunar soil itself, and then using them to build an array that will measure some 400 km (250 miles) thick. Since the Moon’s equator receives a steady amount of exposure to the Sun, the photovoltaic ring would be able to generate a continuous amount of electricity, which it would then beam down to Earth from the near side of the Moon.

It’s an ambitious idea that calls for assembling machinery transported from Earth and using tele-operated robots to do the actual construction on the Moon’s surface, once it all arrives. The project would involve multiple phases, to be spread out over a period of about thirty years, and which relies on multiple strategies to make it happen.

lunaring-1For example, the firm claims that water – a necessary prerequisite for construction – could be produced by reducing lunar soil with hydrogen imported from Earth. The company also proposes extracting local regolith to fashion “lunar concrete”, and utilizing solar-heat treatment processes to fashion it into bricks, ceramics, and glass fibers.

The remotely-controlled robots would also be responsible for other construction tasks, such as excavating the surrounding landscape, leveling the ground, laying out solar panel-studded concrete, and laying embedded cables that would run from the ring to a series of transmission stations located on the Earth-facing side of the Moon.

space-based-solarpowerPower could be beamed to the Earth through microwave power transmission antennas, about 20 m (65 ft) in diameter, and a series of high density lasers, both of which would be guided by radio beacons. Microwave power receiving antennas on Earth, located offshore or in areas with little cloud cover, could convert the received microwave power into DC electricity and send it to where it was needed.

The company claims that it’s system could beam up to 13,000 terawatts of power around-the-clock, which is roughly two-thirds of what is used by the world on average per year. With such an array looming in space, and a few satellites circling the planet to pick up the slack, Earth’s energy needs could be met for the foreseable future, and all without a single drop of oil or brick of coal.

The proposed timeline has actual construction beginning as soon as 2035.

biosuitAnd naturally, when manned missions are again mounted into space, the crews will need the proper equipment to live, thrive and survive. And since much of the space suit technology is several decades old, space agencies and private companies are partnering to find new and innovative gear with which to equip the men and women who will brave the dangers of space and planetary exploration.

Consider the Biosuit, which is a prime example of a next-generation technology designed to tackle the challenges of manned missions to Mars. Created by Dava Newman, an MIT aerospace engineering professor, this Spiderman-like suit is a sleeker, lighter alternative to the standard EVA suits that weigh approximately 135 kilograms (300 pounds).

biosuit_dava_newmanFor over a decade now, Newman has been working on a suit that is specifically designed for Mars exploration. At this year’s TEDWomen event in San Francisco, she showcased her concept and demonstrated how its ergonomic design will allow astronauts to explore the difficult terrain of the Red Planet without tripping over the bulk they carry with the current EVA suits.

The reason the suit is sleek is because it’s pressurized close to the skin, which is possible thanks to tension lines in the suit. These are coincidentally what give it it’s Spiderman-like appearance, contributing to its aesthetic appeal as well. These lines are specifically designed to flex as the astronauts ends their arms or knees, thus replacing hard panels with soft, tensile fabric.

biosuit1Active materials, such as nickel-titanium shape-memory alloys, allow the nylon and spandex suit to be shrink-wrapped around the skin even tighter. This is especially important, in that it gets closer Newman to her goal of designing a suit that can contain 30% of the atmosphere’s pressure – the level necessary to keep someone alive in space.

Another benefit of the BioSuit is its resiliency. If it gets punctured, an astronaut can fix it with a new type of space-grade Ace Bandage. And perhaps most importantly, traditional suits can only be fitted to people 5′ 5″ and taller, essentially eliminating short women and men from the astronaut program. The BioSuit, on the other hand, can be built for smaller people, making things more inclusive in the future.

Mars_simulationNewman is designing the suit for space, but she also has some Earth-bound uses in mind . Thanks to evidence that showcases the benefits of compression to the muscles and cardiovascular system, the technology behind the Biosuit could be used to increase athletic performance or even help boost mobility for people with cerebral palsy. As Newman herself put it:

We’ll probably send a dozen or so people to Mars in my lifetime. I hope I see it. But imagine if we could help kids with CP just move around a little bit better.

With proper funding, Newman believes she could complete the suit design in two to three years. It would be a boon to NASA, as it appears to be significantly cheaper to make than traditional spacesuits. Funding isn’t in place yet, but Newman still hopeful that the BioSuit will be ready for the first human mission to Mars, which are slated for sometime in 2030.

In the meantime, enjoy this video of the TEDWomen talk featuring Newman and her Biosuit demonstration:

Sources: gizmag, fastcoexist, blog.ted