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See-through solar windows are crossing the Valley of Death that separates labwork from the world of commerce (image courtesy of Ubiquitous Energy).

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See-Through Solar Windows Turn Houses Into Powerhouses

See-through solar windows are crossing the Valley of Death that separates labwork from the world of commerce.

The Intertubes are buzzing over the new see-through solar windows installed at Patagonia’s headquarters in California, and for good reason. An ordinary solar cell blocks sunlight from passing through. It’s a tricky feat to engineer one that performs the sustainability twofer of harvesting renewable energy while also lighting up an interior space with zero emission sunlight. The question is, where did Patagonia get theirs?

See-Through Solar Windows For Patagonia

The Wall Street Journal has the scoop on Patagonia’s see-through solar windows, which it describes as “new and unproven technology.” The rest is behind a paywall, so we reached out to the famously sustainable retailer for more details.

Before the reply comes in, we’re going to venture a guess at the question of where the solar windows came from. If our guess is correct, then “new” is on the money as far as the technology goes, but “unproven” is not quite so.

We’re guessing that the solar windows were supplied by the California company Ubiquitous Energy, which spun out of a Michigan State University research project that has been years in the making.

UE’s transparent PV tech got its first major field test at the school’s Biomedical and Physical Sciences Building last year, where 100 square feet of solar window was installed above the entryway.

See-Through Solar Windows, Coming Soon

UE has been pushing things along at a rapid pace since then. In April of this year, the company announced a successful demonstration of its trademarked UE Power technology on a large, 1.5-meter-wide sheet of glass. The size is significant because it provides for contemporary building design that favors large windows.

“This critical milestone shows the ability to scale UE Power™ to large sizes uniformly, which is critical in achieving high performing solar devices while maintaining the beautiful aesthetics and function of traditional low-emissivity window glass,” the company stated.

Not wasting any time, the company also announced plans for a full scale, high-volume manufacturing plant engineered around solar windows that measure 1.5 x 3.0 meters.

They Do Doors, Too

Further validating UE’s technology is the well known US manufacturer Anderson Windows, which put down a stake in UE as a leading investor last year.

That’s no accident. The MSU research team aimed for high volume production from the start.

“UE Power™ is the only transparent solar glass coating technology that is manufactured using vacuum physical vapor deposition (PVD), the same equipment used by global manufacturers to coat nearly all architectural glass today totaling billions of square feet annually,” UE explains.

“UE Power™ organic semiconductor materials were deposited in a full-size PVD prototype coater, showing near-perfect uniformity within 1-2% tolerance over 1.5 meter wide glass for coatings that are tens of nanometers thick,” the company added.

Anderson, for one, is happy with the results. In August the company issued a press release that underscored a collaborative relationship with UE.

“Ubiquitous Energy has demonstrated significant progress, validating its large area coating equipment with the ability to uniformly coat floor-to-ceiling glass in addition to advancing its next-generation materials pipeline using artificial intelligence,” Anderson stated, adding that “the companies are working together to bring products to market that will revolutionize solar generation for residential and light commercial buildings.”

As described by Brandon Bert, Anderson’s senior VP for R&D, the plan is to incorporate UE Power into the company’s doors as well as its windows.

“This is a powerful opportunity to leverage our industry leadership, product development expertise and manufacturing capabilities to help bring innovative new products to the marketplace,” he explained.

“Andersen’s investment in Ubiquitous Energy represents the company’s future-focused interest in advancing the fenestration industry with disruptive technology solutions that have the potential to elevate the industry and contribute to a healthier environment,” the company emphasized.

Everyone Is Talking About Transparent Solar Windows

UE’s solar window also caught the attention of the World Economic Forum, which spotlighted UE in an article last September.

“There’s so much glass in the world, the potential is huge,” WEF enthused.

“See-through solar panels that look like glass aren’t just a pipe dream,” WEF added. “They’re already being used – and have huge potential to help meet the world’s energy needs from renewable sources.”

Citing a Michigan State University study, WEF observed that “solar windows and related transparent solar technologies could provide around 40% of energy demand in the United States.”

UE also attracted the attention of the organization Business Intelligence Group, which awarded its Green Company of the Year title to UE in November.

“Ubiquitous Energy’s transparent, energy-generating solar windows are poised to be the next big breakthrough in a product that has remained mostly unchanged for centuries,” BIG enthused. “The impact of the company’s technology reaches new potential as it prepares for product launch within the next few years.

Why Did It Take So Long?

See-through solar windows first crossed the CleanTechnica radar back in 2010, when the US Department of Energy issued a progress report on see-through photovoltaic research at its Los Alamos and Brookhaven national laboratories. The research team was focusing on molecules composed of 60 carbon atoms, called fullerenes.

“Fullerines have the ability to assemble themselves into a honeycomb-like pattern of hexagons. When they are applied to a polymer they end up pushing the polymer chains to the edges of the hexagons, and that makes the resulting material transparent,” we noted.

If you know what happened to that project, drop us a note in the comment thread. Meanwhile, UE co-founder and CTO Miles Barr has an explanation for the wide gap between laboratory and marketplace.

“Architectural glass isn’t actually flat; it’s slightly wavy.” he explains. “For this reason, achieving highly uniform, defect-free thin film electronics like transparent solar over large glass sheets has historically been difficult by other methods like solution printing.”

“Well established PVD coating technology gives us tight control over thickness and optical appearance of our transparent solar organic semiconductor materials and allows us to piggyback on the equipment and process controls that has been enjoyed by the architectural glass industry for decades,” he added.

The next step involves building a factory-ready version of UE’s prototype coater, with an eye on operation in 2024.

What If We’re Wrong?

On the other hand, it’s possible that Patagonia has gotten its new transparent solar window from another firm. If you can think of any others, drop us a note in the comment thread.

One candidate could be the Arizona company Solar Window Technologies (formerly New Energy Technologies), which is bringing its multipurpose “LiquidElectricity®” glass and plastic coating to market.

Follow me on Trainwreck Twitter @TinaMCasey.

Find me on LinkedIn: @TinaMCasey or Mastodon: @Casey or Post:  @tinamcasey

Image: Use cases for transparent photovoltaic technology courtesy of UE.

 
 
 
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Written By

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

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