Solars panels, while a game-changing feat of engineering, have historically been—depending on your aesthetic preferences—a bit of an eyesore. But this is changing since researchers from Michigan State University have developed see-through solar panels. Completely transparent. Think windows. These ingenious panels will be able to provide numerous functions in
The American inventor Charles Fritts created the first commercial solar panel way back in 1881, describing it himself as “continuous, constant and of considerable force.” But the panels were somewhat inefficient: the design was perfected for commercial use in 1939 by American engineer Russell Ohl, who created the solar cell design that we have become familiar with today.
The Michigan State University research team, already having an engineering formula that worked, focused on transparency instead. What they came up with has been termed a “transparent luminescent solar concentrator,” or TLSC, which can function as a coating over clear surfaces like windows, harvesting solar energy without affecting the function of the window to let in light.
The technology employs organic molecules, which function on a light wavelength not visible to the human eye. Dr. Richard Lunt is the assistant professor of chemical engineering and materials science at MSU’s College of Engineering, and he explained in more detail: “We can tune these materials to pick up just the ultraviolet and the near infrared wavelengths that then ‘glow’ at another wavelength in the infrared. The captured light is transported to the contour of the panel,” he continued, “where it is converted to electricity with the help of thin strips of photovoltaic solar cells.”
The design is ideal for use in architecture. As more solar energy can be harvested from the larger surface area of a building’s facade, as opposed to its rooftop, TLSC could make a huge energy impact on tall buildings. Especially glass ones. TLSC does not affect the overall look of the building or compromise the focus of the architectural design, but lends the benefits of a hyper-efficient energy technology to existing properties. TLSC can also be integrated into old buildings.
The New York Times reported favorably on the new technology: “If the cells can be made long-lasting, they could be integrated into windows relatively cheaply, as much of the cost of conventional photovoltaics is not from the solar cell itself, but the materials it is mounted on, like aluminum and glass,” they wrote. “Coating existing structures with solar cells would eliminate some of this material cost.”
Boasting a triple whammy of appealing characteristics— being transparent, impactful, and
Dr. Lunt’s excitement reflects that of the team at large. “We’re not saying we could power the whole building,” he clarified, “but we are talking about a significant amount of energy, enough for things like lighting and powering everyday electronics.”
The future is looking clearer and clearer.
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