A new generation of see-through solar cell technology could soon be used to harvest the massive energy potential of building and car windows, cell phones as well as other objects with a transparent surface.
Scientists at Michigan State University detailed in a paper in the journal Nature Energy how highly transparent solar applications could “nearly meet U.S. electricity demand” and drastically reduce reliance upon fossil fuels.
“We will see commercial products become available over the next few years,” Richard Lunt, an associate professor of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science at MSU, tells Newsweek. “We are just beginning to hit performance metrics that make sense to scale up.”
Lunt and his MSU colleagues have previously pioneered solar technology that collects energy from invisible wavelengths of light so that it doesn’t disrupt the view when placed over a window.
The system uses materials to pick up ultraviolet and near infrared wavelengths, which are guided to the edge of the surface they are on for it to be converted into electricity by thin strips of photovoltaic solar cells.
Ultra-thin, transparent solar panels could potentially be retrofitted onto skyscrapers and smartphones, meaning windows and screens would not need to be replaced in order to generate electricity from buildings or electronic devices.
Compared to traditional solar cells, the transparent technology still has some catching up to do. Rooftop solar panels typically have an efficiency of between 15 and 18 percent, whereas the see-through solar cells record efficiencies of around 5 percent. However, Lunt says he expects to see a three-fold improvement in efficiency of the transparent solar cells.
“While adoption of conventional photovoltaics on rooftops and in solar farms has grown rapidly in the last decade, there is still plenty of opportunity for expansion,” the Nature Energy paper states.
“See-through solar technologies with partial light transmission developed over the past 30 years have initiated methods of integration not possible with conventional modules.”
The untapped electricity potential of this energy source, the researchers note, is vast. An estimated 5 billion to 7 billion square meters of glass surface in the United States could be used to meet 40 percent of the country’s energy demand, or “close to 100 percent” if energy storage is improved.
“That is what we are working towards,” Lunt says. “Traditional solar applications have been actively researched for over five decades, yet we have only been working on these highly transparent solar cells for about five years.
“Ultimately, this technology offers a promising route to inexpensive, widespread solar adoption on small and large surfaces that were previously inaccessible.”