Bulky solar panels may be a thing of the past with the invention of transparent solar cells that look like glass.
Photo by Richard Lunt
It’s likely (at least, we hope) that we’re heading toward a solar-powered world. At present, solar is the cheapest form of alternative energy in about 60 countries--and counting. Countries around the world are also aiming to scale back their greenhouse gas emissions, with solar as a prime alternative source of energy.
However, solar panels aren’t the lightest, smallest, or least conspicuous. This may deter those who would like to use solar energy, but don’t have the space (or the structural integrity) to do so.
Fortunately, researchers at Michigan State University have come up with see-through solar panels that can function as window panes, thus incorporating the panels into buildings themselves.
The question, of course, is how efficient the transparent panels are. They may be transparent and easier to incorporate into buildings, but will they generate sufficient power?
Richard Lunt explains the workings of transparent solar panels, and his dreams of turning solar farms into solar cities. [Video by Michigan State University]
“Highly transparent solar cells represent the wave of the future for new solar applications,” said head researcher Richard Lunt. “We analyzed their potential and show that by harvesting only invisible light, these devices can provide a similar electricity-generation potential as rooftop solar while providing additional functionality to enhance the efficiency of buildings, automobiles and mobile electronics.”
This isn’t the research team’s first venture into creating new kinds of solar technology. Previously, they invented solar technology that can be placed over windows without blocking or disrupting the view. This particular technology took energy from invisible wavelengths of light. This new technology, however, aims to replace the glass panes themselves, though it can also be retrofitted into older buildings.
A demonstration of how the transparent cells work. [Video by MSU News]
According to the researchers, if the panels can cover five to seven billion square meters of glass surfaces in the US, they’ll be able to generate about 40% of the country’s energy. At the moment, the researchers say, solar power provides only 1.5% of power in the country. See-through solar cells may be able to raise that number much higher.
However, it’s unlikely that these panels will be able to cover five to seven billion square meters of transparent surfaces anytime soon. Another thing to consider is that the transparent panels aren’t yet as efficient as existing panels.
Photo by Kurt Stepnitz
Regular solar panels have 15% efficiency. The transparent panels, meanwhile, only have about 5%. However, before we write these transparent panels off completely, we need to consider that the work in creating the transparent panels isn’t actually over yet. According to Lunt, he and his team are only about a third into a five-year research project. The transparent panels can thus still improve.
“Traditional solar applications have been actively researched for over five decades,” Lunt reasons, “yet we have only been working on these highly transparent solar cells for about five years.”
However, the researchers also admit that the transparent solar cells won’t be able to outperform traditional solar cells, even when used to their full potential. The edge of the new panels over their predecessors would likely be their transparency.
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