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Published on January 28th, 2012 | by Britt Mauriss

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5 Fresh Innovations in Solar Technology

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January 28th, 2012 by
 
 
It’s true—amazing solar tech innovations just keep coming. Some advances come in the form of new handheld devices and applications. Others promise to elevate solar into a mainstream energy source that may one day replace greenhouse-gas-emitting fossil fuels. Here are five recent innovations that have left both solar experts and newbies in a daze.

solar-kindle-solar-focus

1. The SolarKindle

One of the products that garnered a lot of interest at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show was a solar cover for Amazon’s Kindle e-reader, presented by Solar Focus. With just one full hour of sunlight, the SolarKindle collects enough energy to power your device for three days. What’s more, the cover is advertised as being able to provide power to the tablet for three continuous months under “normal” sunlight conditions. Take your Kindle outside with you, and it’ll stay charged for free (with zero fossil-derived energy). Winner.

danicel-nocera-artificial-leaf

2. Artificial Leaf

Now, this is where things get really trippy. MIT researcher Daniel Nocera has developed what he calls an Artificial Leaf, a potentially groundbreaking energy storage technology that successfully mimics nature. In a photosynthesis-like process, the ‘leaf’ uses solar energy to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. The emitted gases could then be stored in a fuel cell, making off-grid living beyond feasible. Not only that, but Nocera says that his leaf’s efficiency outperforms nature by a factor of 10. He founded the company Sun Catalytix to work on products that may some day provide electricity to impoverished households in developing countries. Solutions are expected to be ready for commercial use in the next few years. (Note: while it’s called an ‘artificial leaf’, it’s not actually a leaf.)

lotus-solar-charging-station

3. The Lotus Position

Partly an electric-vehicle charging station, partly an LED street lamp, the “Lotus” is a solar kiosk-like structure in the shape of a giant lotus leaf. Italian architect Giancarlo Zema, known for his innovative designs for semi-submerged architecture, teamed up with architectural design house Luminexence to create the multi-faceted design. A modular product, a single small Lotus generates 500 watts of electricity. Larger “leaves” generate 2.8 kilowatts, and can be used as covered parking structures for multiple vehicles. The Lotus may find its way into parks as self-operating information kiosks. The architects ultimately envision a solar-powered “urban design shelter” that transforms public space as we know it.

dow-powerhouse-solar-shingles

4. Dow Powerhouse Shingle

It’s hard not to include Dow’s new solar shingles in any list of up-and-coming solar innovation. If you haven’t heard of building integrated photovoltaics (BIPV), remember the term, because it promises to make solar blend seamlessly with its surroundings. What makes the thin-film solar shingles remarkable is that they double as your rooftop, providing a roofing replacement and solar installation at the same time (for far less cost). The shingles are applied like conventional asphalt shingles, and can be installed by roofing contractors without specialized knowledge in solar power. The Powerhouse shingles finally came to market in Colorado at the end of last year. They are expected to expand into California and other states this year.

solar-tunnel-belgium

5. Belgium’s Solar Tunnel

Along a high-speed rail line in Belgium, sit 16,000 solar panels atop two miles of man-made tunnel. The Solar Tunnel marks the first time in European history that a railway infrastructure has been used to generate clean power. That solar energy now operates the signaling, lighting, and heating systems for stations and junctions along the train’s route from Antwerp to Amsterdam, making the train, an already greener form of transportation, that much more self-sustainable. The panels, installed through a collaboration of municipalities, solar developer Enfinity, and installer Solar Power Systems, are expected to produce over 3,000 megawatt-hours of electricity each year. That’s enough to power 950 homes. Civic development at its finest.

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About the Author

Brittany Mauriss is a UCLA grad with a passion for all things renewable energy. Her specialties are solar advancements, green gadgets and human-centric journalism. She also manages CalFinder Solar, an awesome free service that connects you with residential solar contractors, eco-focused kitchen remodel pros, and more. Follow her on Twitter @BrittanyMauriss.



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  • robert marty

    This seems to be a great site which offers Roof,Roof Tiles, Roof Repairs,Gutters,Roof Painting,Roof Tiles, Slate Roof for home improvements etc.and I would surely like to try their services.I had been relying on http://www.ghtuk.com earlier and they too offered good stuff.

  • mariiakruk

    really enjoyed your article, especially the artificial leaf paragraph. Although, I have heard only about solar roofing shingles by now. But your post really enlightening.

    • http://cleantechnica.com/ Zachary Shahan

      Thanks. We’ve written about them for years. Search “solar shingles” in one of our search boxes. But they aren’t being mass-produced yet, so not that well known.

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  • http://www.homemadeenergyreview.com Homemade Solar Panels

    I’d like to use solar energy to powered my hourse. Solar Energy is one of the most powerful forms of alternative energy on the planet. I thinking this is great ways to reduce my power bill.

    • http://cleantechnica.com/ Zachary Shahan

      For sure.
      :D

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  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_FA53KB4PEXWW33OU4X2CX7XOCY ecd.fan

    I hadn’t read any news that Dow had actually rid its Powerhouse solar shingle of its persistent moisture buildup problem inside its encapsulated cells. Not sure I would be one of the guinea pigs testing out their electric generating panels along with rain, snow, heat on my home. Else live close to your local fire station and have a few extra fire extinguishers on hand, in the ready.

  • http://neilblanchard.blogspot.com/ Neil Blanchard

    On the small scale end of things, I would love to find a solar PV battery charger for either AA and AAA cells or with a USB output — that actually works. I have the “Juice Bar” and it is next to useless. Too little power to even work it’s little LED light for more than about 15 minutes after a day in the sun.

    Does anybody have any experience with a solid well designed unit?

    Neil

    • Darrell

      About 5 years ago, my (now deceased) inventing partner was 86 year old “Solar Sam” from Needham, MA. We experimented with all kinds of solar gadgets and came up with perpetual lighting system.  A simple desk lamp converted to run off of rechargeable batteries.  The batteries sat in the charger that was connected to a  9.5v mini panel that was clipped inside the lampshade.  So the incandescent bulb fed the panel that fed the charger that charged the batteries that powered the lamp.

      • Bob_Wallace

        Congratulations.

        You broke one of the Laws of Physics….

        • http://cleantechnica.com/ Zachary Shahan

          Or left too many permanent markers around with their caps off. :D

          • Darrell

            Ever try it?  I am guessing you are an “engineer” of some type with the “naysayer” mentality.  Don’t analyze it…just do it and you’ll see it works.  You’re welcome.

  • http://twitter.com/smaameri Sami Maameri

    Artificial Leaf. Hm. Sound like a research lab experiment, possibly taking another 10 – 30 years till we actually see this on large scale action.

    As for roof tiles, SolarCentrury won a lot of awards for its similar innovative solar roof tile design that seamlessly integrate with the rooftop fabric

    • http://neilblanchard.blogspot.com/ Neil Blanchard

      You should look at the MIT web site — they are fairly far along with this, and production in 5 or 6 years?

      Neil

  • http://twitter.com/microsapiens microsapiens

    I Suggested in the Ecomagination to guide sunlight through optical tubes for lighting buildings and residences. This concept, if exploited, can change the architecture we know. We may use a distribution light box and do not use conventional lights in house. I still need to explain this idea better. It is very interesting! http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=302865226403797&set=a.190293597660961.45526.100000409679153&type=3&theater

    • Marie Hawkins

      Not sure it is the same thing, but, the Japanese have been using something that sounds like what you describe to light buildings as well as mines. If I recall, they used abandoned mines to raise mushrooms.

    • Bob_Wallace

      Something like that has been on the market for a while. I think one of the brand names is Solar Tube. They’re showing up in interior bathrooms and hallways.

      Small plastic dome that fits on the roof, flexible mylar ‘pipe’, and ceiling outlet.

      Another company was talking about fiber optics to move light into areas not directly under a roof, don’t know if they went to market.

  • dcmeserve

    That “artificial leaf” technology is really just normal electrolysis, albeit with much cheaper electrode material than platinum. That’s a great advance, but it looks like they’re still struggling to get anywhere near the efficciency of normal electrolysis.

    I really dislike their attempted PR hype in calling it an “artificial leaf”. Makes one think it’s using a much more direct sunlight-to-chemical energy path than they are.

    • http://cleantechnica.com/ Zachary Shahan

      Thanks for the note. One of our writers is on the same page as you, which you can see in the post linked to about how it is not a leaf.

      • dcmeserve

        Hum. In Aaron Fown’s article linked to via “it’s not actually a leaf,” he makes the claim that this technology is still important because it does electrolysis at 10x the efficiency of previous technologies. But, according to the other cleantechnica article pointed to by the “Artificial Leaf” link:

        > The “artificial leaf” converted 2.5% of incident sunlight into electricity, … [something technical] raised its conversion efficiency to 4.7%

        So if we assume these are 20%-efficient solar cells, then he’s getting electrolysis at 12.5% to 23.5% efficiency. My understanding is that typical electrolysis is more like 50% efficient — though I think this is only through with use of platinum for the electrodes.

        I’m guessing Mr. Fown meant to say that this technology is getting 10x the efficiency of previous *platinum-free* electrolysis technologies. As such, this is still a good advance, but it’s still a long way from the kind of efficiencies that would make H2 competitive with still-rapidly-advancing battery technologies.

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