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

Powered By The Sun: Visualizing Swanson’s Law

solar_power1For decades, solar power has been dogged by two undeniable problems that have prevented it from replacing fossil fuels as our primary means of energy. The first has to do the cost of producing and installing solar cells, which until recently remained punitively. The second has to do with efficiency, in that conventional photovoltaic cells remained inefficient as far as most cost per watt analyses went. But thanks to a series of developments, solar power has been beating the odds on both fronts and coming down in price.

However, to most people, it was unclear exactly how far it had come down in price. And thanks to a story recently published in The Economist, which comes complete with a helpful infographic, we are now able to see firsthand the progress that’s been made. To call it astounding would be an understatement; and for the keen observer, a certain pattern is certainly discernible.

PPTMooresLawaiIt’s known as the “Swanson Effect” (or Swanson’s Law), a theory that suggests that the cost of the photovoltaic cells needed to generate solar power falls by 20% with each doubling of global manufacturing capacity. Named after Richard Swanson, the founder of the major American solar-cell manufacturer named SunPower, this law is basically an imitation of Moore’s Law, which states that every 18 months or so, the size of transistors (and also their cost) halves.

What this means, in effect, is that in solar-rich areas of the world, solar power can now compete with gas and coal without the need for clean energy subsidies. As it stands, solar energy still accounts for only  a quarter of a percent of the planet’s electricity needs. But when you consider that this represents a 86% increase over last year and prices shall continue to drop, you begin to see a very trend in the making.

What this really means is that within a few decades time, alternative energy won’t be so alternative anymore. Alongside such growth made in wind power, tidal harnesses, and piezoelectric bacterias and kinetic energy generators, fossil fuels, natural gas and coal will soon be the “alternatives” to cheap, abundant and renewable energy. Combined with advances being made in carbon capture and electric/hydrogen fuel cell technology, perhaps all will arrive in time to stave off environmental collapse!

Check out the infographic below and let the good news of the “Swanson Effect” inspire you!:

swanson_effectSource: theeconomist.com