The most efficient form of solar technology today is (arguably) extreme concentrated photovoltaics, essentially solar panels placed under a magnifying glass. But the problem with these systems is heat.
Concentrated sunlight can melt silicon solar panels unless you include specialized cooling systems. Cooling technology costs money, and the panels require expensive tracking mechanisms to follow the sun through the day. MIT’s new solar system bypasses the heat and tracking problems all together.
Thin coatings of organic dyes absorb sunlight and redirect favored wavelengths into a pane of glass. The light is aimed and concentrated towards the edge of the pane where small solar panels are located. The concentrated light allows the panels to produce the maximum possible amount of energy all day, every day without cooling systems or complex tracking mechanisms.
The idea is not new, but its founders in the 70s could not overcome technical challenges. The technology was abandoned when research funding dried up. Their dyes were unstable, and their optical experise was imperfect. Much of the light captured and concentrated into their glass or plastic was lost before it could reach the solar cells. MIT took tips from laser technology and organic light emitting diodes (OLEDs) to perfect the technology. Their expertise increased the distance light can travel through glass or plastic to reach the solar panels, boosting energy production.
“In addition, the focused light increases the electrical power obtained from each solar cell “by a factor of over 40.”" According to Marc A Baldo, an associate professor at MIT who helped lead the project. For more technical details, you may need an AAAS membership to read the Science article.
Three Reasons Why This Could Rock the Solar World:
1) It’s Easy: The technology is neither complex or difficult to manufacture. All you need is a window frame laced with solar panels and an ordinary pane of glass or plastic. Apply the proper ratios of organic dyes and you’re ready to go. The finished product looks like smoked glass and could be used on rooftops or solar farms. Future improvements could bring them to ordinary windows. Hopefully it will be competitive in price with other solar technologies.
2) Upgrade Existing Solar: This technology can be applied to existing photovoltaic panels to boost their efficiency by as much as 50% with minimal additional cost. Upgrading existing solar panels will not only boost their energy output, but shift their cost/energy ratios. That means that even older, more expensive solar installations could become more competitive with non-renewable energy sources.
3) It’s Coming Soon: MIT claims this technology could be ready for commercial production within three years. A company has already been founded to capitalize on the technology, and it won two prizes at MIT’s Enterpreneurship Competition, totaling $30,000. They will also seek more investment over the next few months. Keep your eyes peeled for Covalent Solar.
But nothing is certain. Like any new technology, this one has its challenges ahead. The dyes, for example, have a demonstrated lifespan of ten years, but most solar panels come with twenty or twenty-five year warranties. Covalent Solar must also run the gamut of any fledgling business to bring their product to market. With so many improving and emerging solar technologies, they will face a lot of competition.
What makes this technology different is its implications for existing solar installations and expansion into new spaces. A window that helps power a building could become a powerful tool towards super-efficient or power-producing structures. The potential for low cost, high efficiency solar technologies has never been greater.
Images via the MIT website
More on Solar Power:
- Another Efficient Form of Solar
- How About Cheap or Free Solar?
- Solar is Good for the Economy..
- …and the Power Grid
I'm an environmentalist who loves to write. I grew up across the southeastern U.S.A. and especially love the Appalachian mountains. I went to school in the north east U.S.A. in part to witness different mindsets and lifestyles than those of my southern stomping grounds. I majored in English Lit. and Anthropology. I've worked as a whitewater rafting guide, which introduced me to a wilderness and the complex issues at play in the places where relatively few people go. I also taught English language in South Korea for a year, which taught me to take nothing for granted. Currently I'm applying for grad school to study international environmental policy.