The changing face of solar

Learn about the changing face of solar with three exciting developments in the field of solar power innovation.

In 2014, Swiss company Airlight Energy announced a new parabolic dish – resembling a sunflower – that can covert 80% of the sun’s radiation into useful energy and also generate fresh water and air-conditioning.

In Germany, an architect created a spherical solar energy-generating globe that can generate power from both sunlight and moonlight, making its solar harvesting capabilities 35% more efficient than the conventional PV designs.

It’s in the glass.

Imagine if the glass screens on your smart phone or the windows on your home had the capacity to turn the sun’s energy into power!

Michigan State University has created the first fully transparent solar concentrator that can be used like any window or sheet of glass but with the ability to generate power. Instead of generating power with a transparent photovoltaic cell (which is impossible), this is made possible by using a transparent luminescent solar concentrator. Put simply, this is part of a solar harvesting system that uses small organic molecules to absorb specific nonvisible wavelengths of sunlight. 

What does this mean?

The researchers are confident that the technology can be scaled for large industrial and commercial uses (think the windows on skyscrapers) and consumer devices (tablet and smartphone screens) to become increasingly affordable. This means that instead of solar panels on the roof, windows and glass panels are replaced with fully transparent solar concentrators to deliver every home and building with energy.

It’s in the fuel.

Looking for ways to harness the sun’s energy to get it to power your vehicle? Leave it to the scientists at Harvard University to figure this one out. To create this, sunlight is used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. Hydrogen and carbon dioxide are then converted to liquid fuel isopropanol by adding bacterium and hey presto! Liquid solar fuel.

What does this mean?

The hope with this innovation is that solar energy will find more adopters, particularly in the developing world, where the ability to make energy locally will really take off.

Daniel Nocera, the Patterson Rockwood Professor of Energy at Harvard University, who wrote the initial paper on this development, says they’re almost at 1% efficiency rate of converting sunlight into isopropanol.

So it’s fair to say it’s a little way off before it’s a viable technology, but this innovation could mean that access to cheaper biofuel could very well be on the way.

It’s in the air.

The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has managed to transmit solar energy wirelessly, by converting it into high-output microwaves. This means one day, microwave-transmitting solar satellites, unaffected by weather, could transmit around-the-clock electricity to receivers on earth.

What does this mean?

Satellite-based solar panels can generate power 24/7, no matter what the weather. While the researchers are aiming for practical use in the 2030s, the project has proved that this technology is feasible. This could mean that solar satellites could eventually be set up 35,000 kilometres from Earth.

Solar harvesting is developing in interesting and original ways that will really make a difference to how we use energy now and into the future.