German Researchers Explore Tunable Solar Cells, Identify All Applications

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With the possible exception of baseball caps, one size never really fits all. A group of German aerospace researchers decided to apply that little nugget of wisdom to solar cells, and took a comprehensive look at solar technology to figure out what technology fits which applications best. With this research out of the way, the group says they’re confident they know the best way to give each kind of solar installation the best tech to generate the most power.

“These tuning capabilities in adjustable solar cells cover a multitude of aspects such as bandgap, transparency, color, thermal management, mechanical flexibility, weight, and size,” the scientists said. “Tunable PV can be defined as solar cell technologies that present a manipulation of inherent properties through material design of the functional components and retrofits or via device architecture engineering.”

Really, it’s not just a matter of picking the right kind of solar panel. On top of choosing the right cells, the team looked at small tweaks that could be made to each solar cell’s tiniest parts to figure out how to make it best fit a certain kind of installation. Possible applications that have wildly varying needs include integrating solar cells into building exteriors, windows that generate power but also let you see through, solar panels on vehicles, greenhouses, small sensors for internet of things applications, wearable electronics, floating panels, and even solar panels placed in the water.

While we tend to think of solar cells as mostly being useful for generating electricity, the team’s full research paper shows us that they can do a lot more than generate electricity if you select the right cells and tune them for the job. Tunable solar cells can be made to fit aesthetic considerations, such as what color they appear to be or what kinds of other visual properties they have. They can also be used to aid visual comfort, such as tinting glass. Perhaps more importantly in the summer, they can be used to insulate from heat, and reduce the load on air conditioning equipment, thus lowering the needed power at the same time.

Ultimately, the team’s work can lead to solar cells that just don’t look like solar cells. Being able to choose color, texture, and shape to best fit a project could give engineers and architects more choices when designing a building with integrated solar. Automotive companies could even add panels that are built to order by the customer, giving them not only some free range, but the color they’re looking for at the same time.

Personally, I’m not bothered by the appearance of solar panels and solar cells. They look high-tech and futuristic. Given their past reputation for being expensive, they also provide a bit of bragging rights when they’re placed on something. If nothing else, they’re an awesome virtue signal, right? But, not everybody thinks that way. Many people want the benefits of solar technology, but they want it to happen in a way that isn’t so “poke you in the eye.”

This team’s research gives people the option to do whatever they want with solar cells, and that’s going to only mean they show up in more places.

Featured image: A Tesla solar roof that hides the appearance of solar cells. Many more applications like this will be possible in the future. Image provided by Tesla.

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

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