Calvin University's official student newspaper since 1907

Calvin University Chimes

Calvin University's official student newspaper since 1907

Calvin University Chimes

Calvin University's official student newspaper since 1907

Calvin University Chimes

Transparent solar technology developed

An idea that has been over twenty years in the making could soon be hitting glass markets everywhere. Transparent films developed by Ubiquitous Energy capture solar power, and could soon be mounted on everything from windows to cellphone screens, creating see-through solar cells.

While the sun is indisputably the source with the greatest advancement potential in renewable energy schemes, solar cells are currently hovering at about 20 percent efficiency. While transparent cells would be less efficient, they offer a flexibility that more than makes up for the shortfall: they can be mounted practically anywhere.

“It’s a whole new way of thinking about solar energy, because now you have a lot of potential surface area” Miles Barr, chief executive and co-founder of Ubiquitous Energy told National Geographic. “You can let your imagination run wild. We see this eventually going virtually everywhere.”

Barr believes Ubiquitous Energy will be able to achieve 10 percent efficiency in its transparent solar cells. It’s quite a feat, considering that these cells can only absorb light (and the associated energy) from the invisible ends of the color spectrum, in order to appear transparent to the human eye. The cells capture energy on the infrared and ultraviolet ends of the continuum — beyond the visible colors of red on the one end and violet on the other.

This strategy is where the loss of efficiency comes in: when only the invisible light is captured, all the visible wavelengths must be allowed to pass through.

The company is starting small — focusing on extending battery life in small devices such as smartphones and watches, according to National Geographic’s Marianne Lavelle. Barr estimates that the solar coating will not drastically influence the cost of mobile devices when it becomes commercially available.

The potential market is a significant one: “There are millions and millions of square meters of glass surfaces around us,” Barr reported to National Geographic. Every one of them is a potential site for transparent solar films. Solar film-coated glass, should all go according to plan, will be impossible to distinguish from regular windows and phone screens.

“Ideally,” Barr told National Geographic, “it doesn’t look like anything.”

The material itself is manufactured thanks to research in organic chemistry that has been ongoing since the 1990’s. According to Lavelle, much of this has been focused on designing structures on the molecular level capable of carrying an electric charge.

According to Nikos Kopidakis, a senior research scientist at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado, the organic solar films will require much less energy to create than the traditional panels do, particularly once a manufacturing system comes into play.

The traditional silicon panels require high temperatures to produce. In contrast, transparent films can be produced and applied at room temperature.

But Shayle Kann, senior vice president of GreenTech Media (GTM) Research market firm, suggested that there will still be financial hurdles for Ubiquitous Energy to overcome. Their product is entering a market (small though it is) that is already dominated by a more efficient panel. The allure of transparency is formidable though; with “millions and millions of square meters” of potential surfaces out there, the market could become very large indeed.

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