Did you know that nearly 173,000 terawatts of solar energy hit the earth continuously? It is more than 10,000 times the total energy usage in the world?
Yes, that is what sunlight does every day, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration!
Generally, we do not take things seriously that are abundant, and the sunlight is one of them. However, considering the current trend, it seems that our future lies in finding more alternative energy like solar energy.
In 1954, Bell Laboratories developed the first silicon solar cell. That innovation triggered a series of discoveries in the solar energy domain.
The space industry was the first to have started using solar technology in the 1960s to generate power for spacecraft. Solar cells powered the Vanguard 1, which was the first artificial earth satellite. It remained the oldest event of manmade satellite in orbit and logged a whopping 6 billion miles.
These days some innovators have come up with technologies that will most likely change our future in terms of how we get energy.
Many of these technologies can convert sunlight into heat energy, that can be further converted into electricity.
In this post, let us look into 10 technological breakthroughs in the solar industry that will redefine the future of energy. Let us take a look at the list:
When Alexandre Edmond Becquerel discovered the photovoltaic effect in 1839, who would have imagined that it will become one of the primary technologies for generating solar energy in the 21st century.
Alexandre decoded the photovoltaic effect, or how to create an electrical current in a conductor that gets direct sunlight.
Later, scientists carried out more advanced research to use the PV technology that can directly produce electricity. Now, it is possible to use, store, or convert the electricity for long-distance transmission.
In simple words, PV devices are capable of converting sunlight into electrical energy. A single PV device is called a “cell.” PV cells are usually made from various types of silicon.
Generally, a single PV cell is small, and can typically produce around 1 or 2 watts of power. To increase the output of PV cells, then those cells are tied to chains to form larger units that are known these days as “modules” or “panels.”
It is possible to use modules or panels individually or to connect several of them to form arrays. One or multiple arrays are connected to the electrical grid to complete a PV system.
In the current day, solar PV is mainly installed on rooftops at homes and businesses, and it directly generates electricity from solar energy. Solar thermal technologies convert the sun’s energy to generate heat, which further generates electricity.
Concentrating Solar Power (CSP)
Concentrating Solar Power or CSP got its name as the technology concentrates sunlight to generate thermal energy, which is then used to generate electricity.
It means the CSP technology uses focused sunlight. The system generates electric power by using mirrors to concentrate the sun’s energy and convert it into heat.
Subsequently, the heat goes through a traditional generator. The system comprises two parts: the first part collects solar energy and converts it into heat, and the second part converts the heat energy into electricity.
This technology takes three alternative technological approaches: trough systems, power tower systems, and dish/engine systems.
We can use CSP solar power systems for providing power to villages (10 kilowatts) or through grid-connected applications (up to 100 megawatts). Some systems use thermal storage during cloudy days or at night.
These features, coupled with record solar-to-electric conversion efficiencies, make CSP technology an attractive renewable energy option, particularly in the Southwest and other sunbelt regions in the world.
If we take the example of the US, CSP plants have been in use for more than a decade. The optimum use of CSP technology needs wide areas for collecting solar radiation to produce electricity at a commercial level.
Solar Heating & Cooling (SHC)
The Solar Heating & Cooling (SHC) technology generates thermal energy (heat) for pool and space heating.
It is, however, interesting to know that that SHC technology can be used for cooling as well.
So, how SHC technology works?
It collects the thermal energy from the sun and uses the heat to provide hot water, pool heating, cooling, and space heating for residential, commercial, and industrial users.
Particularly, solar heating systems are economical for residential users. They are likely to get ROI between 3 and 6 years. In the case of commercial usage, these can companies to lower energy bills and to manage long-term overhead costs.
These days, many companies across the world are manufacturing and installing SHC systems that significantly reduce dependency on imported fuels.
The US has produced substantial SHC installations since 2010, where the systems covered between 10,000 and 50,000 ft on a single installed wall. It has opened up a large-scale opportunity to address the ventilation or space heating issue.
MIT-invented Transparent, flexible solar cells using Graphene
Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have invented transparent and flexible graphene-based solar cells. It is feasible to mount those cells on different surfaces such as glass, plastic, tape, and paper.
The MIT researchers made a comparison of their graphene electrode solar cells with other solar cells made from regular materials such as indium tin oxide (ITO) and aluminum.
The experiment showed that the power conversion efficiency (PCE) of the new solar cells was significantly lower than regular solar panels. However, those cells are way better than earlier transparent solar cells. This is progress for sure.
Now, we can imagine a future where solar cells could be everywhere — on walls, windows, mobile phones, laptops, and more.
This progress in solar technology has been possible by a method of depositing a one-atom-thick layer of graphene onto the solar cell.
The ability to use graphene is making it possible to get flexible, low-cost, and transparent solar cells that can turn any surface into a source of electric power!
Simple Planar Optical Technology (SPOTlight) by Canadian inventor John Paul Morgan
Toronto-based John Paul Morgan, a Canadian inventor, has made himself counted among one of the top innovators of the latest solar technologies, called Simple Planar Optical Technology (SPOTlight).
According to Morgan, this technology can transform “found spaces” in urban areas into renewable energy sources.
A few examples of found spaces are:
- Building materials
- Curtain walls
Also, the translucent PV sunshades can blend with the designed elements in an aesthetic environment.
SPOTlight targets customers, who want to visibly improve their energy sustainability. Also, coloured LEDs can be programmed and easily integrated to turn the solar panels into a light source and digital display.
The main advantages of this technology are:
- The ability to capture thermal energy and using it to heat or cool the interior space.
- Improving workplace productivity and
- Saving electricity.
Morgan and his company have developed optics that are in the panel, and they are paper-thin. Thick panels need more raw material and can be expensive. With this innovation, the solar industry is heading to a future where the cost of energy may come down to almost zero.
Floating Panels/Floating Solar Farms
In many countries across the world, there is not enough space to install ground-mount solar systems. Authorities in these countries, often look for alternative ecological solutions.
Keeping this problem in mind, a French company Ciel & Terre International has been producing floating solar systems since 2011.
The company manufactures hydrelio floating PV system that allows installing standard PV panels on large water bodies. It is possible to install the system on quarry lakes, drinking water reservoirs, tailing ponds, irrigation canals, and hydroelectric dam reservoirs.
This technology is a simple and affordable alternative to ground-mounted solar systems, and especially suitable for water-intensive industries that strictly avoid wasting either land or water.
According to the company, the system is easy to install and dismantle and can be adjusted with any electrical configuration. It is also scalable from low- to high-power generation without any tools or heavy equipment. In addition, the system is eco-friendly, recyclable, and cost-effective.
As of now, the system has been installed in the UK. The company is also set to work on deploying floating solar farms in countries such as India, Japan, and France.
Transparent Solar Cells that could power Mobile phones and Skyscrapers
MIT scientists have made transparent solar cells that could make ordinary items, such as windows and electronic gadgets, generate their own power.
These solar cells have the ability to absorb infrared and ultraviolet light only. Visible light goes through the cells without any obstruction, and that is why human eyes do not know about its existence.
This new solar transparent PV technology is capable of keeping up with today’s solar cells, unlike other technologies due to their deployment methods.
Ubiquitous Energy, a startup company in Silicon Valley has successfully created transparent solar cells. They have made these cells using organic chemistry. Organic solar takes a lesser manufacturing cost compared to conventional silicon solar panels.
In the future, the company can use these invisible solar cells to provide electricity to the high-rise buildings. ClearView Power Technology that the company uses is a solar cell that can be used to coat windows and displays. Subsequently, the system can help them harvest artificial light and produce electricity.
Flexible Parylene-based Solar cells as light as a soap bubble
MIT scientists are at it again! This time they have come up with a technology that has the most lightweight and thinnest solar cells ever made.
During the initial experiment, the researchers used parylene, which is a regular flexible polymer and Dibutyl Phthalate (DBP), organic material as the main layer for absorbing light.
Unlike traditional cell manufacturing, this process is carried out in a vacuum chamber at room temperature, and without using any harsh chemicals. By using vapour deposition techniques for heat, pressure, and chemical reactions, the researchers have created an ultra-thin coating of a particular material.
The ultra-thin cells have just 1/50th thickness of a human hair and 1/1000th of the thickness of existing glass-based cells. However, the cells have the ability to convert sunlight into electricity.
Parylene is a plastic coating that is commercially available and widely used for purposes such as protecting printed circuit boards and implanted biomedical devices from environmental damage.
Bacteria-powered Solar Cell that can function even under overcast skies
Researchers at the University of British Columbia have developed an inexpensive and sustainable way to build solar cells using a type of bacteria that is capable of converting light into energy.
Initial testing shows that the cells can work efficiently both in dim and bright light. These cells can generate solar power even under cloudy skies. Moreover, the cells can generate a current that is stronger than any such instance recorded from a similar device.
This technology is suitable to deploy in areas like Canada and Northern Europe that often have cloudy skies. Other environments, including deep-sea, and mines, could also be considered for implementation.
This innovation may have taken a great stride toward wider adoption of solar power in areas like British Columbia and parts of northern Europe where cloudy skies are common.
Solar Panels with Graphene coating that generates Electricity from Rain Drops by China
Finally, the last in our list and perhaps the most innovative one is a technology developed by scientists from China. They have created a new type of solar panel that is capable of generating electricity from raindrops!
By applying a thin layer of graphene, the solar panel can effectively produce power from rain.
The raindrops contain salt, which splits into ions — sodium, calcium, and ammonium — making graphene and water a suitable combination for producing energy.
The thin layers that scientists energy use have variance between them and this variance are strong enough to generate electricity.
If we go by the scientists’ opinion, this new technology could lead to designing advanced all-weather solar cells.
No one can deny the fact that our current ways of producing energy need an overhaul for various reasons.
The first major reason is traditional energy sources have limited supply such as petroleum and other fossil fuel. Besides, many countries are still dependent on foreign oil and coal supplies.
The second reason is all of the conventional energy systems release greenhouse gases and other pollutants that have serious health hazards.
This is why innovative technologies listed in this post, starting from PV, floating solar farms to graphene-coated solar panels can provide great solutions to our energy-deficiency.
These technologies can bring solar energy close to both residential and commercial users by bringing down the price. Due to this reason alone, solar energy is increasingly becoming an economical energy option for homeowners and businesses.
There are still obstacles in many countries because of unfavourable or lack of solar policies, and also soft cost issues such as zoning, permitting, and installing a power grid. Overcoming these issues will make solar energy a mainstream and affordable option. The silver lining is that things are already moving toward a positive direction.
Related article: Top Solar Statistics You Need to Know in 2019
The 10 Biggest Renewable Energy Breakthroughs of 2010
With our planet in a desperate need of new eco-friendly energygenerating systems, researchers over the globe have been working hard to develop systems that can power the world of the future in a sustainable fashion. The year 2010 saw some great breakthroughs in the field ofrenewable energy technology, which when fully developed, could helpcreate a better world. Here we have compiled a list of 10 suchbreakthroughs that are bound to have a significant impact in the future.
• IBM’s solar cell created from “earth abundant” materials
Researchers at IBM created an inexpensive solar cell from materials that are dirt cheap and easily available. The layer that absorbs sunlight and converts it intoelectricity is made with copper, tin, zinc, sulfur and selenium. Thebest part of the solar cell is that it still manages to hit anefficiency of 9.6 percent, which is much higher than earlier attempts to make solar panels using similar materials.
• MIT’s Concentrated Solar Funnel
A group of researchers at MIT devised a way to collect solar energy 100 times more concentrated than atraditional photovoltaic cell. The system could drastically alter howsolar energy is collected in the near future as there will no longer be a need to build massive solar arrays to generate large amounts of power.The research work conducted has determined that carbon nanotubes will be the primary instrument used in capturing and focusing light energy,allowing for not just smaller, but more powerful solar arrays.
• Wake Forest University’s Light Pipes
Researchers at the Wake Forest University in North Carolina made a breakthrough by developing organic solar cells with a layer of optical fiberbristles that doubles the performance of the cells in tests. Theprototype solar cell has been developed by David Carroll, who is thechief scientist at a spin-off company called FiberCell. The problem with standard flat panels is that some sunlight is lost through reflection.To reduce this effect, the research team took a dramatic approach bystamping optical fibers onto a polymer substrate that forms thefoundation of the cell. These fibers, dubbed the “Light Pipes,” aresurrounded by thin organic solar cells applied using a dip-coatingprocess, and a light absorbing dye or polymer is also sprayed onto thesurface. Light can enter the tip of a fiber at any angle. Photons thenbounce around inside the fiber until they are absorbed by thesurrounding organic cell.
• Louisiana Tech University’s CNF-PZT Cantilever
Created by a research team at Louisiana Tech University, the CNF-PZT Cantilever is abreakthrough energy harvesting device, which utilizes waste heat energyfrom electronic gadgets to power them. The device features the use of acarbon nanotube on a cantilever base of piezoelectric materials. Thecarbon nanotube film absorbs heat and forces the piezoelectriccantilever to bend, which then generates an electric current in thematerial. The device is so small that thousands of small CNF-PZTCantilever devices can be designed into devices, allowing them toharvest their own wasted energy.
• New Energy Technologies’ see-through glass SolarWindow
New Energy Technologies developed a working prototype of the world’s first glass window capable ofgenerating electricity. Until now, solar panels have remained opaque,with the prospect of creating a see-through glass window capable ofgenerating electricity limited by the use of metals and other expensiveprocesses, which block visibility and prevent light from passing through glass surfaces. The technology has been made possible by making use ofthe world’s smallest working organic solar cells, developed by Dr.Xiaomei Jiang at the University of South Florida. Unlike conventionalsolar systems, New Energy’s solar cells generate electricity from bothnatural and artificial light sources, outperforming today’s commercialsolar and thin-film technologies by as much as 10-fold.
• Purdue University’s system to harvest heat from car’s exhaust
Researchers at Purdue University created a system that harvests heat from a car’s exhaust in order to generateelectricity and reduce the vehicle’s fuel consumption. The systemconverts waste heat into electricity, which is then fed into thevehicle’s onboard batteries to reduce engine load and fuel consumption.
• Innowattech’s Piezoelectric IPEG PAD
Innowattech recently created piezoelectric generators that can be used as normalrail pads, but generate renewable energy whenever trains pass on them.The company tested the technology by replacing 32 railway pads with newIPEG PADs, where the pads were able to generate enough renewableelectricity to determine the number of wheels, weight of each wheel andthe wheel’s position. In addition the speed of the train and wheeldiameter could also be calculated. The company states that areas ofrailway track that get between 10 and 20 ten-car trains an hour can beused to produce up to 120KWh of renewable electricity per hour, whichcan be used by the railways or transferred to the grid.
• Sony’s Flower Power
Sony recently demonstrated new DSSC’s for energy generating windows, which help beautify your home as well. The beautifully designed solar panels make use of screenprinting to generate custom designs according to the consumer’spreferences. The panels can be developed in any color that the userspecifies.
• Plant mimicking machine produces fuels using solar energy
A team of researchers in the US and Switzerland have created a machine that like plants uses solar energy to produce fuels, which can later be used in different ways. The machine makes use of the sun’s rays and ametal oxide called ceria to break down carbon dioxide or water in fuelsthat can be stored and transported. Unlike solar panels, which work only during the day, this new machine is designed to store energy for lateruse.
• CSIRO’s Brayton Cycle Project
Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO, developed a technology that requires only sunlight and air to generateelectricity. The system is ideal for areas that face acute watershortages. The solar Brayton Cycle project replaces use of concentratedsun rays to heat water into high-pressure steam to drive a turbine withsolar energy to create a solar thermal field. The technology focuses the sun’s rays projected onto a field of mirrors knows as heliostats onto a 30-meter (98 ft) high solar tower to heat compressed air, whichsubsequently expands to through a 200kW turbine to generate electricity.
Solar Reflectors That Will Cut Production Costs
A small solar company has teamed with scientists at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL)to develop massive curved sheets of metal that have the potential to be30 percent less expensive than today’s best collectors of concentratedsolar power.
In an official press release, the NREL and SkyFuel Inc. haveannounced their SkyTrough Parabolic Trough Solar ConcentratingCollectors, an innovative replacement for old, glass-based models, anda hopeful game-changer in solar energy’s bid to out-muscle gas and coalin providing electricity for American homes.
This latest breakthrough was recently honored by R&D Magazine as one of the top 100 technical innovations of the year, and by the Federal Laboratory Consortium with a 2009 Excellence in Technology Transfer Award.
How Does it Work?
Solar scientists for years have understood the advantage of the parabolic shape, which distorts the rays, concentrating the sun’s heat onto a tube filled with heat-transfer fluid,which carries the heat to the boilers in a power station. Theheat-transfer fluid can get as hot as 400 degrees Celsius (more than750 degrees Fahrenheit). However, past reflectors have required glassinstallations, which are not always cost-effective.
“Glass is highly durable, but is heavy and hard to shape withoutadded cost,” NREL senior scientist Gary Jorgensen says. “Once industrysees the advantages of the silver polymer and is convinced the productis durable in an outdoor environment, the sky is the limit.”
SkyFuel Chief Technology Officer Randy Gee says the film,trademarked ReflecTech® Mirror Film, “has the same performance as theheavy glass mirrors, but at a much lower cost and much lower weight. Italso is much easier to deploy and install.” The glossy film usesseveral layers of polymers, with an inner layer of pure silver.
The cost advantage is about 30 percent, a huge dividend in anindustry that has scratched together savings one percent at a time fordecades.
A Brief History:
The story goes back to the late 1990s, when Gee and Jorgensen workedwith a small $25,000 federal grant to see if they could come up with analternative reflector. They used NREL’s testing facilities to sampledozens, indeed hundreds, of possible materials that potentiallyprovided the low-weight low-cost highly flexible properties needed todrive down the cost of solar power collection.
“Within two years, we had enough data to believe we had a substantial improvement relative to predecessors,” Jorgensen recalled.
Parabolic collectors have been around since the 1970s. Back thenthey were about seven feet wide and 20 feet long, a half dozen or solined up to collect the sun’s rays, a motorized system turning themirrors as the sun moved across the sky.
“The natural evolution was to get larger and reduce costs,” saysGee, who worked with Jorgensen in the 1980s at the Solar EnergyResource Institute, NREL’s predecessor. “Each generation got larger,”pointing to the day when utility companies would want to purchase thetroughs for 50- to 100-megawatt plants.
“Just two-and-a-half years into the development cycle, it looks likeour great technical team is going to be able to take a big chunk out ofthe costs of installing CSP systems,” Gee claims. “We’re not doing thisin tiny steps but in big chunks.”
Jorgensen has been working on renewable energy for 30 years. Hecalls today’s climate a perfect storm … with the realization by thepublic of the importance of alternative energy, with politicianslistening to the public, with energy demands and with security issuesof not wanting to rely on foreign oil.
He remarks, “with the whole impact of global environmental change, we’re truly at the pinnacle of a golden age.”