Green Cities

The Path Forward in Solar Panel Technology is Clear

Can you imagine an entire city built with materials that were able to absorb and harvest solar energy? Up until recently, this has been a dream because solar panels were thought to only be able to be installed on roofs due to their tinted nature. This is because solar panels generate energy by converting photons into electrons. By definition if the solar panel is transparent, it allows all the light to travel through uninhibited so that sunlight cannot not be absorbed and converted into energy. While teams from MIT have be able to reduce the tint in panels, they have only been able to get the transparency up to 70%. Recently, however, a team of researchers from Michigan State University led by Dr. Richard Lunt from the College of Engineers has proven this assumption wrong and developed transparent solar panels. The trick to these transparent panels is that instead of trying to create a transparent photovoltaic cell (which is impossible), they use a transparent luminescent solar concentrator (TLSC). The TLSC is able to absorb non-visible wavelengths of ultraviolet and infrared light. These wavelengths that are invisible to us are guided to the edge of the panel where they are converted to electricity by thin strips of photovoltaic solar cells. According to Lunt, “because the materials [the panels] do not absorb or emit light in the visible spectrum, they look exceptionally transparent to the human eye”. Essentially, instead of shrinking the components to lessen the tint of solar panels, Lunt and his team changed the way solar panels absorb light. Although these new solar panels are only able to produce a solar conversion efficiency rating of 1 percent, Lunt is confident that the conversion efficiency can be increased to 10 percent soon. The biggest difficulty with renewable technology is figuring out how to convert our current infrastructure that is designed for fossil fuels to one of clean energy. This new solar harvesting system is a step in the right directions as the solar panels will be able to be installed over both existing windows and to new buildings in a non-intrusive way. With this new technology – which is projected to remain affordable – solar panels would be able to be installed onto every surface of tall buildings and mobile devices. Recognizing the commercial potential of this technology, the company called Ubiquitous Energy was founded with the first commercial product – a mobile device – only a few years away. The harvest and production of solar power on a mass level without any inconveniences or obtrusions is not going to save the planet, but it is a clear step in the right direction.