Environment

Solar-everything will power your life

Sipho Kings

The breakneck speed of development in photovoltaic technology means that soon every surface will be generating energy.

Recent advances in photovoltaic technology mean that practically any surface can be used to generate energy. (AFP)

Recent advances in photovoltaic technology mean that practically any surface can be used to generate energy. This comes as more and more countries adapt to using solar energy, bringing funding for increasingly innovative technology.

An advanced take on traditional technology, the Spin Cell from the United States turns solar panels into a cone. This allows it to catch the sun throughout the entire day. It also spins, which stops the sun from concentrating one on point, keeping it cool. The company pioneering it, V3Solar, says it can produce power at less than 80c a kilowatt-hour – Eskom's new power stations will produce power at 97c. 

In the United Kingdom, Oxford Photovoltaics, has pushed this idea further by creating a thin film of transparent cells that can sit on a window pane. At only three microns thick, it does not get in the way of glass’ traditional job of being see-through.

The treatment adds 10% to the cost of windows, but for office blocks where the trend is to have as much glass as possible this cost is negligible compared to the environmentally-friendly power that is created.

Kevin Arthur, its founder, told the Guardian, “If you decide to build a building out of glass, they you’ve already decided to pay for the glass. If you add this, you’re adding a very small extra cost.”

Colourful power
The layers come in most colours, with each one having different efficiencies. Black is the best but has the obvious downside of not providing a view. Green and red are somewhere in the middle, with blue being one of the least effective colours.

Further up the road, experts from the Universities of Sheffield and Cambridge have created a spray-on photovoltaic coating. It allows the tiny cells that absorb and create energy to be sprayed onto flat surfaces, which allows for cheaper retrofitting of older locations which were never built to be energy efficient.

Professor David Lidzey, from the University of Sheffield, said, “We have shown it [spray painting] can be used to make solar cells using specially designed plastic semiconductors.”

“Maybe in the future surfaces on buildings and even car roofs will routinely generate electricity with these materials,” he said.

The research was motivated by the effort that goes into building conventional solar cells – like solar panels. Their creation is energy intensive and uses materials, like silicon, which come at a high cost to the environment. The plastic semiconductors take much less energy to create, he said.

Future
But there is still a long way to go before the technology can compete with traditional silicon cells, and they are less efficient at converting energy, he said.

Across the Atlantic Ocean, researchers at Penn State University are working on conductors that can be used to charge small devices like phones.

Their work has created a fibre out of silicon semiconductors. John Badding, the research leader, said, “We can take the silicon fibres and weave them together into a fabric with a wide range of applications such as power generation, battery charging, chemical sensing, and biomedical devices."

By being flexible the fibres are able to catch the sun from many angles, unlike conventional solar panels which normally only point in one direction, he said.

"The military especially is interested in designing wearable power sources for soldiers in the field," he said. – The Guardian


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