See-Through Solar Could Turn Windows, Phones Into Power Sources
Anyone who has sweltered in a south-facing office during the summer knows the power of solar energy streaming through a window.
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In fact, no reputable urban architect today would design such a workspace without treated windows to reduce the sun’s glare and heat.
But what if the window coating could do better than keep out the sun? What if that thin film could capture the solar energy for lighting the office, running the computers, and best of all, firing up the air conditioning?
That’s the idea behind “transparent” solar, a technology that startup companies hope to bring to market soon, after at least two decades of U.S. government-backed and university research.
With the help of organic chemistry, transparent solar pioneers have set out to tackle one of solar energy’s greatest frustrations. Although the sun has by far the largest potential of any energy resource available to civilization, our ability to harness that power is limited. Photovoltaic panels mounted on rooftops are at best 20 percent efficient at turning sunlight to electricity.
Research has boosted solar panel efficiency over time. But some scientists argue that to truly take advantage of the sun’s power, we also need to expand the amount of real estate that can be outfitted with solar, by making cells that are nearly or entirely see-through.
“It’s a whole new way of thinking about solar energy, because now you have a lot of potential surface area,” says Miles Barr, chief executive and co-founder of Silicon Valley startup Ubiquitous Energy, a company spun off by researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Michigan State University. “You can let your imagination run wild. We see this eventually going virtually everywhere.”
Invisible Spectrum Power
Transparent solar is based on a fact about light that is taught in elementary school: The sun transmits energy in the form of invisible ultraviolet and infrared light, as well as visible light. A solar cell that is engineered only to capture light from the invisible ends of the spectrum will allow all other light to pass through; in other words, it will appear transparent.