Tuesday, May 17, 2011

New Solar Product Captures Up to 95 Percent of Light Energy

We are witnessing the birth of an energy revolution. As this technology improves over the next few decades, innovation climbing on the back of innovation, what we are doing right now will seem quite primitive - but you will be able to tell your kids "I remember when". So smile.

Solar is one area that holds incredible promise for the ever-increasing ability to harvest renewable energy, as evidenced by this next new discovery. Hat tip to my Dad who sends me these science articles that are a bit over my head (me no science good), but I get the gist of it - and this one sounds like the winner.

Efficiency is a problem with today's solar panels; they only collect about 20 percent of available light. Now, a University of Missouri engineer has developed a flexible solar sheet that captures more than 90 percent of available light, and he plans to make prototypes available to consumers within the next five years.

Here comes the wonky part.

Patrick Pinhero, an associate professor in the MU Chemical Engineering Department, says energy generated using traditional photovoltaic (PV) methods of solar collection is inefficient and neglects much of the available solar electromagnetic (sunlight) spectrum. The device his team has developed -- essentially a thin, moldable sheet of small antennas called nantenna -- can harvest the heat from industrial processes and convert it into usable electricity. Their ambition is to extend this concept to a direct solar facing nantenna device capable of collecting solar irradiation in the near infrared and optical regions of the solar spectrum.

Yeah, OK, I believe you. It's the application that's important, and since this technology is on flexible film, they hope to produce it so it compliments what we have already started.

"Our overall goal is to collect and utilize as much solar energy as is theoretically possible and bring it to the commercial market in an inexpensive package that is accessible to everyone," Pinhero said. "If successful, this product will put us orders of magnitudes ahead of the current solar energy technologies we have available to us today."

As part of a rollout plan, the team is securing funding from the U.S. Department of Energy and private investors. The second phase features an energy-harvesting device for existing industrial infrastructure, including heat-process factories and solar farms.

Within five years, the research team believes they will have a product that complements conventional PV solar panels. Because it's a flexible film, Pinhero believes it could be incorporated into roof shingle products, or be custom-made to power vehicles.

Somehow hook it in to those big 'ol batteries we will be putting in electric cars? Oh yeah. Sounds better than my idea of using aerovoltiac tubing on the front grill and letting the forward motion of the car create wind generated power. (although I like that one too, I haven't heard it mentioned as a possibility yet)

We get this right, and pretty soon we will more than hit grid parity because the potential for energy generation will far outweigh fossil fuels. Drilling and mining will seem as vulgar and archaic as rubbing two sticks together to create fire. I doubt we will get off oil in my lifetime because of its use in making plastics and other products, but if we can stop using it for energy... well, that would solve a lot of problems, wouldn't it?