It seems that the “paradigm shift” we’re all waiting for—the one where cheap, efficient solar cells deliver free, unlimited energy—is always just around the corner. As it was before, it is today, and the intervening years resounded with the same question: Where is the sun-powered future we were promised? As Apple delivers a new Mac Pro seemingly imported from that imaginary future, while continuing to perfect its iconic iMac, we are tempted to see promising developments in solar power generation as potential Earth-savers. As a nation, we finally seem to realize that every aspect of everyone’s life, everywhere, is affected by limited energy. As the hope of cheap solar energy lives on, let’s take a look at three particular developments.
The existing-infrastructure solution
Windows could save the world. Don’t thank Bill Gates, though—we’re talking about glass windows. They’re part of the entire world’s basic infrastructure, having evolved into specialized kinds:
automotive glass that breaks into small blocks, not shards;
Until recently, there were no solar cells that worked with see-through materials. But New Energy Technologies Inc. of Maryland developed a spray in 2011 that dries clear on glass and generates electricity. The firm says it is also testing “electricity-generating flexible plastic [that] could be deployed as tinted window film, which remains see-through while generating electrical power.”
This spin is no lie
A common issue with energy-producing contraptions is the production of such unwelcome byproducts as vibration, noise, waste—and heat. Without cooling, internal combustion engines would have very short lives, as would high-end Mac Pro rental, whose multiple fans keep it from literally burning up. The heat from the sun causes stationary solar panels to break down, too, in any number of ways, so V3Solar is developing one that is not flat and rectangular, but a truncated cone (lampshade shape) that harvests 20% more energy and powers its own rotation for air cooling. The ability to place multiple units in small spaces shows the potential for the kind of mass use that could undercut costs of both coal and hydroelectric power. V3Solar hopes to offer individuals and businesses a way to support sustainable energy.
Thin is in
Solar cells of the “thin-film voltaic” kind are not new, but neither have they evolved much. When multiple layers of the film are stacked up, naturally occurring reflective patterns restrict the amount of energy collected. A new film—developed by Dr. Chih-Hao Chang and his team at North Carolina State University—eliminates interference by mimicking the non-reflective coatings on moth’s eyes. When used in new thin film solar cells, lost energy is 100 times less. The “macro” level—solar farms, space-based collectors—holds many exciting possibilities, but so does the “micro” level of personal power producers from iPad rental to smartphones, new smart-watches and… the list goes on, right? Decentralized power generation—literally, “Power to the people”—is a topic we have covered before, and one we will update soon. Watch for it!
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