Powered by the Sun: Breakthrough Solar Cells

solar1In addition to becoming cheaper, and increasing in efficiency and yields, solar cell technology is also growing in terms of innovative design. By going beyond the conventional design of silicon panels and electrical cables, researchers are ensuring that solar technology can go farther. And the latest advances in design are especially far-sighted, aiming to merge solar technology with just about any surface, and even sending it into space.

In the former case, researchers at Michigan State University have created a fully transparent solar concentrator, which could turn any window or sheet of glass – from highrise buildings to the screens on smartphones and tablets – into a photovoltaic solar cell. And whereas other “transparent” solar panels have been designed in the past, this one is the first that truly lives up to the word.

transparent-solar-cellScientifically, a transparent solar panel is something of an oxymoron. Solar cells, specifically the photovoltaic kind, make energy by absorbing photons and converting them into electrons. If a material is transparent, by definition it means that all of the light passes through the medium. This is why previous transparent solar cells have actually only been partially transparent, and usually cast a colorful shadow.

To get around this limitation, the Michigan State researchers use a slightly different technique for gathering sunlight. Instead of trying to create a transparent photovoltaic cell, they used a transparent luminescent solar concentrator (TLSC), which consists of organic salts that absorb specific non-visible wavelengths of ultraviolet and infrared light, which they then luminesce (glow) as another wavelength of infrared light (also non-visible).

https://i0.wp.com/www.extremetech.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/transparent-luminescent-solar-concentrator-colorful.jpgThis emitted infrared light is guided to the edge of plastic, where thin strips of conventional photovoltaic solar cell convert it into electricity. Currently, the Michigan TLSC has an efficiency of around 1%, but they think 5% should be possible. On their own, these aren’t huge figures, but on a larger scale — every window in a house or office block — the numbers quickly add up to a significant electrical yield.

Moreover, the researchers are confident that the technology can be scaled all the way from large industrial and commercial applications, down to consumer devices, while remaining “affordable.” So far, one of the larger barriers to large-scale adoption of solar power is the intrusive and ugly nature of solar panels. But if large amounts of solar power can be produced from sheets of glass and plastic, it would go a long way to making the scaling process feasible.

solar_panel_origamiAnother major innovation comes from Brigham Young University, where researchers have been working with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to address the challenge of Space-Based Solar Power. For some time, scientists have understood that a solar array in orbit of Earth would be ideally suited for solar power collection, since it would be immune to weather, cloud cover or diurnal cycles (aka. nighttime).

Unfortunately, getting solar cells into space is a bit of a problem. In order to be effective, solar panels need to be thin have a large surface area to soak up more rays. This makes it difficult to transport them into orbit, and requires that they be broken down,and flown up piece by piece, and then assembled once in orbit. Given the cost of mounting a sending a single rocket into orbit, this prospect becomes very costly very fast.

solar_panel_origami1However, the Brigham team came up with a simple and elegant solution to this problem, and found it in the form of origami. By working with complex origami folds, they were able to design a solar array that can shrink down to one-tenth of its original size. Folded up, the device is 2.7 meters (8.9 feet) across and can easily wrap around a spacecraft. Once it reaches space, the array would then unfold to become as wide as 25 meters (82 feet).

Given that solar panels deal with large, flat, thin structures, the origami concept seems like a natural fit. And this is not the first time that it has been used in space equipment design – in the 1990’s, Japanese astrophysicist Koryo Miura created a prototype for another folding solar panel. However, that project was abandoned for various reasons, not the least of which was lack of funding.

space-solar-headTo make the concept work and renew interest in the application, he Brigham team worked with Robert Lang, a world-renowned origami expert who also happens to be a mathematician and engineer and once worked at JPL himself. As Brian Trease, a mechanical engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said:

He was trained as a physicist, used to work at JPL, and then got tired of the formal bureaucracy and left to start folding paper. Now he’s a world expert… We see value in going directly to any artist, even if they don’t have his credentials, because they have the thousands of hours or folding and tinkering to realize what can and can’t be done. Anytime you can bring in other disciplines, they just visualize things differently and bring in different solutions to your problems.

The new solar panels could be used to power spacecraft and potentially also on orbiting power stations that could wirelessly send energy to Earth via microwaves. A similar design could also be used on Earth to provide new options for portable solar power in remote locations. The same type of design might also be used in architecture or product design because of its unusual looks and function.

NASA_suntowerAccording to Trease, the Department of Defense has already been in touch with them regarding applications for soldiers in the field:

Soldiers right now might carry around 100 pounds, 15 of those pounds are batteries and fuel. If you can eliminate that, you’ve dramatically reduced their load… It’s different from opening an umbrella, because it can accommodate rigid material. You could do something like a deployable glass chandelier or a table. When it’s deployed, it looks like a flower blooming–it’s got a nice aesthetic to it.

In the next few weeks, Trease will also meet with other experts to consider different potential applications for space equipment, like antennas and reflectors, that could also deploy using origami. And given the rapidly-dropping prices associated with placing objects into orbit, this could prove to be the basis for the dream of Space-Based Solar Power – where all our energy needs are met by solar arrays in orbit that then beam them to Earth.

 

Source: extremetech.com, fastcoexist.com

Powered by the Sun: The “Energy Duck”

Magnificent CME Erupts on the Sun - August 31Part of the challenge of paving the way towards a future where solar power is able to meet our energy needs is finding ways to integrate it into our daily lives. Basically, until such time as efficiency limits, storage and intermittency problems are truly overcome, one of the best ways to do this is to place photovoltaic arrays where the demand is highest and to get creative with how they collect it.

For example, a group of British artists have conceptualized a giant solar harvesting floating duck as part of the 2014 Land Art Generator Initiative Copenhagen design competition. Dubbed “Energy Duck”, the giant structure has been designed not only to generate clean electricity for the local residents of Copenhagen, but to also provide a unique visitor center. In short, it comes renewable energy with a cautionary message about the effects of Climate Change.

energyduckInspired by the arctic eider duck, Energy Duck not only hopes to offer a unique renewable energy source, but also highlight the impact that climate change has had on the local population and breeding habitats of the eider duck in recent years. As its creators – Hareth Pochee, Adam Khan, Louis Leger and Patrick Fryer – explained:

Energy Duck is an entertaining iconic sculpture, a renewable energy generator, a habitable tourist destination and a celebration of local wildlife.

Covered in photovoltaic panels, the Energy Duck is designed to harvest solar energy from every inch of its exterior shell. Solar cells mounted around the base are also positioned to take advantage of the sun’s rays being reflected off the water’s surface. Additionally, the facility features hydro turbines which use water pressure to provide stored energy to the grid after sunset and during the evening.

https://i0.wp.com/images.gizmag.com/gallery_lrg/energyduck-2.jpgAll of this helps the Energy Duck overcome the all-important issue of intermittency. By being able to generate energy around the clock, the Duck is not dependent on the sun shining in order to continue operating and providing power. As the team explained:

When stored energy needs to be delivered, the duck is flooded through one or more hydro turbines to generate electricity, which is transmitted to the national grid by the same route as the PV panel-generated electricity. Solar energy is later used to pump the water back out of the duck, and buoyancy brings it to the surface. The floating height of the duck indicates the relative cost of electricity as a function of city-wide use: as demand peaks the duck sinks.

Inside the giant Energy Duck, visitors can get a unique look into the working mechanics of the hydro turbines, watching as the water levels rise and fall. Sunlight also filters through small spaces between the exterior solar panels, providing a kaleidoscope-like view of Copenhagen. However, another interesting feature about the Energy Duck is its environmental message.

energyduck-5So while people are visiting the interior and taking note of the impressive technology, they will also be getting a lesson in why it is important. And really, the inherent message of the concept is really very appropriate. A clean, renewable, alternative energy source designed to look like, and inspired by, one of the many creatures that is endangered because of humanity’s dependence on unclean fuels.

Now if we could just design a land-roving solar farm in the shape of a polar bear!

Sources: gizmag.com, inhabitat.com

The Future is Bright: Positive Trends to Look For in 2014

Colourful 2014 in fiery sparklersWith all of the world’s current problems, poverty, underdevelopment, terrorism, civil war, and environmental degradation, it’s easy to overlook how things are getting better around the world. Not only do we no longer live in a world where superpowers are no longer aiming nuclear missiles at each other and two-thirds of the human race live beneath totalitarian regimes; in terms of health, mortality, and income, life is getting better too.

So, in honor of the New Year and all our hopes for a better world, here’s a gander at how life is improving and is likely to continue…

1. Poverty is decreasing:
The population currently whose income or consumption is below the poverty line – subsisting on less than $1.25 a day –  is steadily dropping. In fact, the overall economic growth of the past 50 years has been proportionately greater than that experienced in the previous 500. Much of this is due not only to the growth taking place in China and India, but also Brazil, Russia, and Sub-Saharan Africa. In fact, while developing nations complain about debt crises and ongoing recession, the world’s poorest areas continue to grow.

gdp-growth-20132. Health is improving:
The overall caloric consumption of people around the world is increasing, meaning that world hunger is on the wane. Infant mortality, a major issue arising from poverty, and underdevelopment, and closely related to overpopulation, is also dropping. And while rates of cancer continue to rise, the rate of cancer mortality continue to decrease. And perhaps biggest of all, the world will be entering into 2014 with several working vaccines and even cures for HIV (of which I’ve made many posts).

3. Education is on the rise:
More children worldwide (especially girls) have educational opportunities, with enrollment increasing in both primary and secondary schools. Literacy is also on the rise, with the global rate reaching as high as 84% by 2012. At its current rate of growth, global rates of literacy have more than doubled since 1970, and the connections between literacy, economic development, and life expectancy are all well established.

literacy_worldwide4. The Internet and computing are getting faster:
Ever since the internet revolution began, connection speeds and bandwidth have been increasing significantly year after year. In fact, the global average connection speed for the first quarter of 2012 hit 2.6 Mbps, which is a 25 percent year-over-year gain, and a 14 percent gain over the fourth quarter of 2011. And by the second quarter of 2013, the overall global average peak connection speed reached 18.9 Mbps, which represented a 17 percent gan over 2012.

And while computing appears to be reaching a bottleneck, the overall increase in speed has increased by a factor of 260,000 in the past forty years, and storage capacity by a factor of 10,000 in the last twenty. And in terms of breaking the current limitations imposed by chip size and materials, developments in graphene, carbon nanotubes, and biochips are promising solutions.

^5. Unintended pregnancies are down:
While it still remains high in the developing regions of the world, the global rate of unintended pregnancies has fallen dramatically in recent years. In fact, between 1995 and 2008, of 208 billion pregnancies surveyed in a total of 80 nations, 41 percent of the pregnancies were unintended. However, this represents a drop of 29 percent in the developed regions surveyed and a 20 percent drop in developing regions.

The consequences of unintended pregnancies for women and their families is well established, and any drop presents opportunities for greater health, safety, and freedom for women. What’s more, a drop in the rate of unwanted pregnancies is surefire sign of socioeconomic development and increasing opportunities for women and girls worldwide.

gfcdimage_06. Population growth is slowing:
On this blog of mine, I’m always ranting about how overpopulation is bad and going to get to get worse in the near future. But in truth, that is only part of the story. The upside is while the numbers keep going up, the rate of increase is going down. While global population is expected to rise to 9.3 billion by 2050 and 10.1 billion by 2100, this represents a serious slowing of growth.

If one were to compare these growth projections to what happened in the 20th century, where population rose from 1 billion to just over 6, they would see that the rate of growth has halved. What’s more, rates of population growth are expecting to begin falling in Asia by 2060 (one of the biggest contributors to world population in the 20th century), in Europe by 2055, and the Caribbean by 2065.

Population_curve.svgIn fact, the only region where exponential population growth is expected to happen is Africa, where the population of over 1 billion is expected to reach 4 billion by the end of the 21st century. And given the current rate of economic growth, this could represent a positive development for the continent, which could see itself becoming the next powerhouse economy by the 2050s.

7. Clean energy is getting cheaper:
While the price of fossil fuels are going up around the world, forcing companies to turn to dirty means of oil and natural gas extraction, the price of solar energy has been dropping exponentially. In fact, the per capita cost of this renewable source of energy ($ per watt) has dropped from a high of $80 in 1977 to 0.74 this past year. This represents a 108 fold decrease in the space of 36 years.

solar_array1And while solar currently comprises only a quarter of a percent of the planet’s electricity supply, its total share grew by 86% last year. In addition, wind farms already provide 2% of the world’s electricity, and their capacity is doubling every three years. At this rate of increase, solar, wind and other renewables are likely to completely offset coal, oil and gas in the near future.

Summary:
In short, things are looking up, even if they do have a long way to go. And a lot of what is expected to make the world a better place is likely to happen this year. Who knows which diseases we will find cures for? Who knows what inspirational leaders will come forward? And who knows what new and exciting inventions will be created, ones which offer creative and innovative solutions to our current problems?

Who knows? All I can say is that I am eager to find out!

Additional Reading: unstats.un.org, humanprogress.org, mdgs.un.org

Towards a Cleaner Future: Solar and Wind Drones

solar_cell_galliumWith supplies of easily accessible fossil fuels diminishing, pushing us towards dirtier sources of oil and natural gas (such as tar sands and frakking), researchers are looking for ways to make renewable energy more efficient and accessible. Towards this end, they are pushing the boundaries of solar cells and wind turbines are capable of, but the constraints of land and weather limit where vast solar or wind farms can be set up.

Luckily, a UK-based company known as New Wave Energy has spent the last few years developing the technology to produce an army of power-generating drone aircraft to overcome these very problems. Basically, each craft is a 20x20m (65ft) flat surface fitted with solar panels and turbines to generate power from the sun and wind, and four small propellers that keep it aloft.

solar_dronesThe drones would be capable of flying at altitudes of up to 15,240 meters (50,000 feet), putting them far above the clouds that can obscure the sun. The propellers would allow the craft to track the course of the sun to remain in optimal position for as long as possible. At these altitudes, the wind is also more consistent and powerful, which means smaller turbines can be used in place of the giant towers necessary down near the ground.

In terms of transmitting that power, the key is in the use of microwaves. In essence, power from the drones would be beamed down as a low-energy microwave and collected by antenna arrays on the ground. These antennas can then be used to turn the electromagnetic radiation into usable DC power and then send it to where it is needed.

solar_drones1One of the benefits of this design is that the proposed drone power plants wouldn’t need to land to refuel themselves. Supposedly, they will be able to power themselves entirely with the energy generated on-board, and still produce 50kW of power. This that means several thousand drones would be needed to power a large city of 205,000 homes.

However, these swarms of robotic power plants aren’t just a way to replace the power infrastructure we already have. They could be used to augment our current power supplies as demand increases, removing the need to expand on large, expensive power plants. Also, they bring power to remote areas with poor service, or to restore power in regions affected by natural disasters.

solar_panelThus, the cost of building and deploying the drones will determine whether or not that’s feasible. At present, the company plans to raise about $500,000 on Kickstarter to fund the construction of a prototype for testing and marketing. If this campaign does turn out to be successful, the first flying power plant could be aloft within six months.

Combined with other improvements that are making wind and solar power more efficient and affordable, and future prospects for space-based solar power (SBSP) that are being made possible thanks to space startups like Google X, we could be looking at a near-future where solar and wind meet the lion’s share of our energy requirements.

Source: extremetech.com

Powered By The Sun: Solar-Plane Heads to Washington

solar_power1It’s known as the Solar Impulse, a solar-powered airplane that for the past few weeks has been accomplishing an historic first. After touching down at Washington’s Dulles International Airport, the plane and its pilot – André Borschberg, co-founder and CEO of Solar Impulse – completed the fourth leg of their historic flight that has taken them across the US.

The plane took off from Lambert-St.Louis International Airport early Friday morning with Borschberg at the controls. But before heading all the way to Washington, the Solar Impulse made a quick pit stop at Cincinnati Municipal Lunken Airport to avoid “challenging weather.” Bertrand Piccard, pilot and Solar Impulse’s other co-founder, took over the aircraft in Cincinnati and completed the flight to Washington Dulles International Airport on the following day.

solar_impulse_washThe Solar Impulse HB-SIA plane started its journey across America at Moffett Field in Mountain View, California, on May 3. On a mission to promote the importance of clean technology, the solar-powered plane made stops in Phoenix, Dallas, and St. Louis. Having completed the leg to DC, the fifth and final leg of the flight will take place early next month and will end at JFK Airport in New York.

The aircraft is powered by 12,000 solar cells that are built into its wings. These in turn charge its lithium batteries, enabling the plane to fly both day and night for up to 26 hours at a stretch without any on-board fuel. With a wingspan of just over 63 meters (208 feet) and a weight of 1600 kilos (3,527 pounds), it is as wide as a large passenger jet and weighs about as much as a small car.

Andre Borschberg, Bertrand PiccardOnce completed, this flight will not only enter the history books as the longest continuous flight done using clean energy, it will also demonstrate the usages of solar power. And the applications which it will promote are extensive, ranging from solar-powered cars to houses, appliances, devices, and just about anything else… under the sun. I’m sorry, bad pun!

Source: news.cnet.com, (2)

Powered By the Sun: The Solar Island

solar4As Climate Change becomes an ever increasing problem, nations are turning to alternative technologies and geological engineering to offset the effects. This means significant investments being made in technologies such as solar cells and other clean energies. However, the question of where to put all the resulting arrays is one which cannot be overlooked. Since we are trying to save the environment, it doesn’t exactly make sense to clear more tracts of land to make room for them.

Already, there is a land rush to build more solar power plants all around the world. In the U.S., the Department of Interior is currently processing leases for roughly 1.8 million acres in the West alone. Globally, solar photovoltaic (PV) capacity has been doubling annually, with another 16 gigawatts of power added just in 2010. At this rate, and considering how much space is needed to set up the average array, we could run out of room real fast!

solar_islandAnd yet, the one thing that accounts for the majority of the planet’s surface area has been sadly neglected up until this point. I am of course referring to the oceans, lakes, reservoirs, retention ponds, and all other natural or unnatural bodies of water. As they account for over three-quarters of the planet’s real estate, they are quickly being targeted as the new frontier for floating solar power plants, with companies and locations being considered from India to Europe, to Napa Valley.

One of the more ambitious plans comes to us from Switzerland, will a proposed array will be built on Lake Neuchâtel later this year. As a collaborative effort between the solar developer Nolaris and the Swiss energy company Viteos, the proposed floating array will be the first of three set upon the lake. Each island will measure some 25 meters in diameter, be built from plastic and steel, and support 100 photovoltaic cells that will rotate with the sun.

solar_island1What’s more, this is just one of several ideas under consideration. Other companies pursuing this concept are favoring floating pontoons with individual photovoltaic assemblies on the water’s surface. In this case, concentrating lenses will focus the sunlight on a solar cell while a simple motor, light sensors, and software rotate the cells to maximize power generation. In tropical climes, where many pilot projects are being considered and storms are quite common, the entire array will be able to submerge as the winds rise.

In other places, where land is particularly expensive, floating solar may even come to rival its land-based counterpart. In Australia, for example, a company named Sunengy is pushing the concept of “Liquid Solar Array” technology, which they claim will be able to match the power output of a typical hydroelectric dam and cover less than 10% of the reservoir’s surface. They are currently teaming up with the Indian giant Tata Power to build India’s first floating solar power plant, and estimate that if India used just 1% of its 11,500 square kilometers of captured water it could generate the equivalent of 15 large coal-fired power stations.

As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention. And as it stands, planet Earth needs energy, and needs to generate it in such a way that won’t mess up the environment any further or usher in the scourge of Climate Change. When the survival of our planet and our species is at stake, you can expect people to get very inventive. Very, very inventive!

Source: factcoexist.com

Powered by the Sun: The Ion Cannon Solar Panel

solar5Hello and welcome back to my ongoing series of PBTS, dedicated to all the advancements being made in solar power. Today’s entry is an interesting one, and not just because it involves an ion cannon… well sort of! It comes to us courtesy of Twin Creeks, a solar power startup that has come up with a revolutionary way to generate photovoltaic cells that are half the price of those currently found on the market.

For many decades, solar power has been held back due to the fact that the cost has been prohibitive compared to fossil fuels and coal. By offering yet another way of cutting the cost of their production, Twin Creeks is bringing this clean alternative one step closer to realization. Ah, but here’s the real kicker: turns out that this revolutionary process involves a hydrogen ion particle accelerator!

hyperion-particle-accelerator1-640x353As has been mentioned in this series before, conventional solar cells are made from slicing 200-micrometer-thick (0.2mm) sections of silicon wafer from a large block. Then electrodes are added, a sheet of protective glass is placed on top, and they are placed in the sun to generate electricity. But of course, this approach has two serious drawbacks. One, a great deal of silicon is wasted in the production process. Two, the panels would if they were thinner than 200 micrometers, but silicon is brittle and prone to cracking if it’s too thin.

And this is where Twin Creeks ion cannon, aka. Hyperion, comes into play. It’s starts with a series of 3-millimeter-thick silicon wafers being placed around the outside edge of the big, spoked wheel (see above). The particle accelerator then bombards these wafers with hydrogen ions and, with exacting control of the voltage of the accelerator, the hydrogen ions accumulate precisely 20 micrometers from the surface of each wafer.

twin-creeks-hyperion-wafer-ii-flexibleA robotic arm then transports the wafers to a furnace where the ions expand into hydrogen gas, which cause the 20-micrometer-thick layer to shear off. A metal backing is applied to make it less fragile as well as highly flexible (as seen on the right). The remaining silicon wafer is taken back to the particle accelerator for another dose of ions. At a tenth of the thickness and with considerably less wastage, it’s easy to see how Twin Creeks can halve the cost of solar cells.

This process has been considered before, but the cost of a particle accelerator has always been too high. However, Twin Creeks got around this by building their own, one which is apparently “10 times more powerful” (100mA at 1 MeV) than anything on the market today. Because of this, they are able to guarantee a product that is half the cost of solar cells currently coming out of China. At that price, solar power truly begins to encroach on standard, fossil-fuel power.

But, of course, there still needs to be some development made on producing solar cells that can store energy overnight. Weather strictures, such as the ability to generate electricity only when its sunny out, remains another stumbling block that must be overcome. Luckily, it seems that there are some irons in that fire as well, such as research into lithium-ion and nanofabricated batteries. But that’s another story and another post altogether 😉

Stay tuned for more sun-powered hope for the future!

Source: Extremetech.com