The future of solar

From giant prisms harvesting moonlight to solar-powered blinds that glow in the dark, there's no shortage of new ideas on how to harness the world's most powerful source of clean energy.

The sun has nurtured life on earth from the very beginning, but it’s only recently that we’ve begun to tap into its true potential. Scientists and dreamers are constantly working on new ways to make the most of solar power, even if some ideas are more ambitious than others.

A world of innovation…

Solar concentrators have long been used to focus the rays of the sun, but solar power specialist Rawlemon has gone to new extremes with giant glass orbs designed to track the Sun across the sky and focus its light onto solar cells. By rotating the solar cells around the orb to always directly face the sun, the system is 35% more efficient than conventional two-axis solar panels that tilt to follow the sun across the sky.

The orbs magnify light up to 10,000 times – they’re so efficient that they can even track the moon across the night sky and squeeze energy out of the light reflected from the sun.

These amazing orbs aren’t the only way to take advantage of the sun after dark. Liteon’s Eco Leaf blinds weave solar cells into the fabric. They can harness the sun’s power during the day while keeping your home cool, but still letting in some light. At night, the blinds’ built-in organic light-emitting diode panels can light your room and can even be programmed to display rudimentary images and patterns by using e-ink to create a shade effect.

…and improvement

While some people are dreaming up new ways to harness the power of the sun, others are working hard to make our existing solar technologies more efficient. The sun flings more energy at the earth in a day than we use in a year, but converting all those rays into usable power presents significant challenges.

A team from the University of NSW’s Australian Centre for Advanced Photovoltaics is working to reduce the amount of energy lost when converting sunlight into electricity. It has achieved 40.1% conversion efficiency by combining commercially available solar cells with mirrors and filters which reduce energy wastage.

The High Efficiency Spectrum Splitting process involves stacking three solar panels to capture energy from different wavelengths of sunlight. Mirrors and filters are used to direct excess light to a fourth solar cell to further reduce wastage.

Improving practicality

Meanwhile, researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are optimising solar panel arrays to perform their best in the shade, making solar power practical for many more homes. Traditional solar panel arrays perform their best when completely exposed to sunlight. A shadow falling across as little as 3% of a solar array can see the power output drop by 25%.

To overcome this problem, power optimisers are used to isolate groups of solar panels in an array – but the MIT team has developed a new way to balance power between solar cells in the sunshine and those in the shade. Their prototype halves the amount of energy lost compared to existing power optimisation methods.

And while the future may hold giant, sci-fi style orbs that harvest moonlight, today’s technology is constantly evolving to change the way Australians consume their energy. Regardless of what form the future technology takes, there’s no doubt that the future is bright for solar power.