Solar panels have come a long way from their humble beginnings as a fringe energy source. Solar panels have been around for decades, but only recently have they become efficient enough to compete with traditional electricity sources. The U.S. Department of Energy’s
National Renewable Energy Laboratory just set a new solar cell efficiency record of 39.5%. This was accomplished under similar lighting conditions under the sun, which is an exciting improvement from the last world record. Here are 5 of the latest solar technologies that are revolutionizing sustainable energy production:
#1: Perovskite Solar Cells
One of the most exciting breakthroughs in solar technology is the development of perovskite solar cells. Perovskite is a group of synthetic materials that are defined by their crystallographic structure (mineral) and can be used as a semiconductor in solar cells. In general, they easily coat surfaces, which means they can be used in cells on their own, or in tandem with other technologies (like crystalline silicon cells).
These cells are able to absorb light very efficiently and convert it into electricity at rates comparable to those of silicon-based photovoltaic (PV) cells but at a much lower cost. Perovskite PV has been compared to "the holy grail" for solar power because of its high efficiency, thin and lightweight enough that it can be placed almost anywhere, and low cost.
One of perovskite's biggest hurdles is the durability factor. Perovskite cells are thin and light in nature, which unfortunately makes them fragile and not that great a material when pitted outdoors. Researchers recently have found a solution to overcome this problem. A study found that an organometallic compound that could be used as an additive to help improve the cell’s lifespan, efficiency & stability. This could lead to perovskite being used commercially very soon.
#2: Organic Photovoltaics (OPV)
Organic photovoltaics (OPVs) are one of the most promising technologies in this category because they offer high efficiency over long lifetimes with low manufacturing costs. Organic power cells are a type of photovoltaic that uses organic electronics, a branch of electronics that deals with conductive organic molecules instead of traditional metals or semiconductors like silicon or gallium arsenide used in traditional solar cells.
Unlike traditional solar panels, these cells can be easily manufactured using techniques used in mass production industries such as printing technology or polymer manufacturing processes like 3D printing which allows them to be produced at much lower costs than their silicon-based counterparts.
Traditional silicon-based solar cells have been around for decades but have been difficult to produce at scale due to high costs and relatively short lifetimes compared to OPVs. OPVs are made from organic materials that are much cheaper than silicon or other minerals used in traditional PV cells. They also tend to last longer than traditional PV cells—sometimes up to ten times as long!
#3: Advanced Solar Tracking Systems
Advanced solar tracking systems are designed to maximize the amount of sunlight that solar panels receive, which can significantly increase the energy production of a solar power system. There are several types of solar tracking systems:
Single-axis tracking systems: These systems use a motor to rotate the solar panels around a single axis, following the movement of the sun as it moves across the sky. Single-axis tracking systems can increase the energy production of a solar power system by up to 25% compared to fixed panels.
Dual-axis tracking systems: These systems use two motors to rotate the solar panels around two axes, allowing them to follow the sun more closely and capture more sunlight. Dual-axis tracking systems can increase the energy production of a solar power system by up to 45% compared to fixed panels.
Smart tracking systems: These systems use algorithms and sensors to optimize the position of the solar panels in real-time, based on the movement of the sun and other factors, such as weather conditions. Smart tracking systems can further increase the energy production of a solar power system beyond what is possible with single- or dual-axis systems.
One of the main advantages of solar tracking systems is that they can significantly increase the energy production of a solar power system, making them a cost-effective option for many applications. However, solar tracking systems can be more expensive to install and maintain than fixed panels, and they may require more land to operate.
#4: Optical Concentrator
To maximize the efficiency of photovoltaic cells, it is best when they are directly exposed to sunlight. In order to take advantage of the sunlight available throughout the day, scientists have implemented solar tracking systems to move the panels in sync with the Sun's movement across the sky. However, installing these systems can be expensive as mentioned earlier, which can be a hindrance to the widespread adoption of solar panels. One way to address this issue would be to install a magnifying glass above the panels to focus the sunlight onto a single point. However, this method can complicated by the Sun's movement, which would cause the concentrated spot to also move across the panels.
As a solution, Nina Vaidya, a researcher at Stanford University, has developed a device called the Axially Graded Index Lens (AGILE) that can concentrate light from any angle and frequency onto a single point on a panel. The device resembles a glass pyramid in an inverted position and is a passive system that does not require energy or moving parts to track the source of the light.
The prototypes developed and tested showed that they were able to capture 90% of the light that hit the AGILE surface, resulting in spots that were three times brighter than the incident light. The lens is also effective across a wide spectrum of light, including ultraviolet, infrared, and light diffused by weather or atmospheric conditions.
Installing a layer of AGILE on top of solar panels has the potential to not only eliminate the need for protective layers but also create space for cooling and circuits between the inverted pyramids. This could allow for smaller solar panels, which would reduce production costs due to the reduced surface area required for power generation.
#5: Solar Skin & Fabric
Solar skin is an innovative solution that allows solar panels to be more seamlessly integrated into their surroundings, making them more attractive and less obtrusive. It is made from the same materials as traditional solar panels, but it is much thinner and more flexible, making it easier to apply and remove. It can be customized to match the color and texture of the surrounding environment, thus increasing the adoption of solar energy by making it more visually appealing and easier to install in a variety of settings such as the roof of a building or a desert landscape.
Solar fabric is a type of fabric that has been designed to harness the energy of the sun and convert it into usable electricity. It is made by integrating thin film photovoltaic cells into the fibers of the fabric, which allows it to generate power when exposed to sunlight. There are a variety of applications for solar fabric, including the creation of portable solar panels, tents, and other outdoor gear that can generate power while on the go. It can also be used in the construction of buildings to generate electricity for lighting and other electrical systems, or incorporated into clothing to power electronic devices. Solar fabric is typically flexible and lightweight, making it easy to work with and install in a variety of settings. It is also durable and able to withstand extreme weather conditions, making it a reliable source of renewable energy.
The Road Ahead
The development of solar power is a good indication of the bright future of sustainable energy production. Since its invention, researchers have been constantly making improvements to solar panels, which have helped them to achieve much better efficacy. With the blue skies of potential ahead, considering a move to solar is more a bright idea than an extravagant whim.