Invisible Solar Cells Get One Step Closer To Reality
Solar energy is growing by leaps and bounds, but when invisible solar cells are introduced, expect it to reach a new level altogether.
With solar power more and more becoming a common option for both commercial and residential sustainable energy cultivation, we are inching ever closer to the day when we might totally end the use of traditional energy sources like gas, oil, and coal. We aren’t quite there yet, but solar energy is undeniably part of the future in energy production – it just needs to find a way to overcome its own shortcomings.
Looking at the green energy movement as a whole, there is no question solar technology will continue to play a major role in the future – along with hydrogen, wind, and cold fusion. At the moment, however, solar power is still somewhat limited, thanks in part to the solar cells themselves.
Solar technology currently requires the familiar solar panels, which have plenty of drawbacks – they are bulky, not generally considered attractive, and they can even cause environmental hazards due to the heat and reflection the panels give off. They also need direct and unfettered access to sunlight, which isn’t always possible based on geography and location. And while people are overwhelmingly in favor of green energy, in theory, people also tend to gravitate toward convenience, and at the moment solar panels aren’t all that convenient.
The obvious next step in solar technology is invisible solar cells, made from translucent materials that can be blended into any existing glass or clear-plastic based product. It is still several years out, but this type of solar technology is very much the future.
Solar panels have recently made a shift in their look, with companies looking for ways to blend them into existing structures naturally. The most obvious (and headline grabbing) example of this are the Tesla solar shingles. They look more attractive than the conventional solar panels, and they are functional – they simply replace existing shingles. The price is still a little steep for most people, but the next time someone needs a new roof installed, they are probably going to at least consider solar panels if they have that option, and Elon Musk’s company is far from alone in producing solar shingles. If you can make solar technology interesting and appealing, that is half the battle.
What’s even more appealing is that many innovative companies are developing transparent solar cells. This technology could significantly expand the reach of solar power by eliminating one of the primary boundaries for the installation of solar cells. People wouldn’t be buying solar panels, they would be buying things like windows that just happen to also be solar panels.
One developer of transparent solar cell technology is Ubiquitous Energy, Inc, a startup headquartered in Redwood City, California, founded in 2011. Ubiquitous is currently developing an invisible film that can be added to several surfaces, including mobile devices, windows, and digital signage. Imagine having a cell phone that you can just leave out in the sun to charge, or a city traffic system that powers itself, all without causing any pollution and you begin to see the potential. You could power your house by replacing the windows and never again have to worry about your car battery draining because you left the lights on.
Others, like Spain’s Onyx Solar, focus on integrating solar photovoltaic technologies into buildings through photoactive glass, which produces energy. This glass is not as transparent as the film Ubiquitous Energy is working on, but would provide more energy, meaning it might be used in large buildings to power them. It could even provide surplus energy to a large urban environment, but just having a single skyscraper be completely energy neutral would hugely ease the demands on a city’s power grid. City and region wide blackouts might even be a thing of the past.
Invisible solar cells work when energy is transmitted by the sun in the form of invisible ultraviolet and infrared light, along with visible light. Solar cells turn light into energy through a process known as the photovoltaic effect, which is both physical and chemical. The energy harnessed is then stored in a battery, which powers existing technology in the same way any form of energy does.
Invisible solar cells are designed as a photo active material which lets visible light pass through. It selectively harvests the parts of the solar spectrum that cannot be seen: the infrared and ultraviolet lights.
There is a tradeoff though. The invisible light that does not get captured does affect the efficiency of the cells to some extent. When it comes to conventional solar panels, only 33-percent of light that hits the surface gets converted into usable energy. When you cut out the visible spectrum, that number drops to 22-percent of power efficiency. Cloudy days can also affect regular solar cells with about a 10 to 24-percent loss, and the same goes for invisible solar cells. However, transparent cells can be placed far more places, more than making up the difference – and then some.
The next time you are driving around a city just look at how many windows you see. Now imagine every one of those was actually collecting energy and sharing it with the city and it’s easy to see the potential. Invisible solar cells would also mean there was no need to look for places to build solar farms or seek out rooftops with the correct angle toward the sun. Existing windows could be retrofit, making an urban area into a solar farm without changing a single about how it looks.
While this new wave of green energy is changing the way we live, it is also earning the overused title of “disruptive” for another industry, one that accounts for billions – possibly trillions – of dollars around the world: construction.
Residential and commercial construction teams, big and small, are becoming tech experts in their own right. In 2016, green building accounted for nearly half of all the construction work in the U.S. They are becoming experts in the field, and most are embracing the change. A whole new breed construction experts are popping up as a result.
The cost of a solar installation is still fairly high, but as new solar technologies make their way to the market, solar applications are dropping in price. There has already been a 9-percent price drop over the last year, and the prices are continuing to fall. It’s too early to say how much invisible solar panels might cost, but the savings in paying for electricity might make it a moot point. It’s also good for everyone, so people may be willing to pay a little more.
Placing invisible solar cells on the various applications can help the planet with sustainability. This is not the only solution needed for sustainability, but it might be a huge piece to the puzzle.