Solar glass: power generation you can see through

WILL CROTHERS

msutoday soalr cell

Researchers at Michigan State University (MSU) are developing the next breakthrough in solar power technology and its incorporation into both consumer products and architecture. Other iterations of “solar glass” are out there, but are limited in that light absorption through the material gives it a coloured tint and produces a shadow. If brought to market, MSU’s innovation removes a practicality barrier with its transparent luminescent solar concentrator (TLSC).

The term transparent, technically speaking, is not completely accurate in that not all light passes through it does not absorb the colours the human eye can see, making the LSC material see through like glass.

The MSU research team is led by Richard Lunt, Yimu Zhao, Garrett Meek and Benjamin Levine. Their research has been published in the journal of Advanced Optical Materials and their online publication, including the journal’s July 2014 cover.

The material is transparent due to organic molecules (described as organic salts by an Aug. 26, 2014 article on extremetech.com) designed to only absorb light photons not visible to the human eye, such as infrared, near-infrared and ultraviolet. The absorbed solar energy is directed to the material’s edges where thin strips of photovoltaic cells convert it into electricity. This technology should have a significant impact on building materials and any product with an electric display such as phones and laptops.

Imagine recharging your phone battery in the middle of nowhere without the need for a solar charging adapter, or extending the range of your electric car simply because you are driving in daylight. We’re not talking about the ability to indefinitely run your electronics, but it does offset some consumption rather than none. While the productivity of the TLSC still needs improvement in its energy efficiency, its application value to replace anything with a screen, window or glass is quite attractive.

In an Aug. 19, 2014 article on MSU Today, the TLSC’s solar conversion claimed efficiency is one per cent but aims to improve to five per cent. At that time the top non-tranparent LSCs peak around seven per cent efficiency.

A common criticism of solar energy products is the conversion inefficiency. Yes, in the production process you can harvest a greater yield from fossil fuels, nuclear reactions and hydro water current turning a turbine. The proper comparator is the zero production that you get from the material you are currently using. The scale of solar energy going un-gathered is staggering yet produces no pollution in either its harvest or end consumption.

The amount of solar energy hitting the earth every hour is enough to meet global demand for a year. However, having a solar infrastructure can afford efficiency losses because the sun produces such an abundance of free energy and it is produced whether we want it or not. One to five per cent of a very large number is way better than zero per cent by a non energy producing material.

The complaint should no longer be that the solar cell is only off setting a small amount of your electric bill. The new complaint should be questioning why we build with materials that do nothing to further offset your electric bill. Of course regular glass offsets electric use by allowing sunlight through rather than turning on an interior light. This new innovation in solar collection allows you to power that interior light without sacrificing use of natural lighting.

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