To a commoner, experiments in the laboratory may appear far-fetched, rather unusual and a tad weird. However, recent developments have proved that certain innovations, more so with regard to solar power, are likely to transcend from the confines of a lab to households, altering lives in the process, for the better of course. What was hitherto a remote idea, is now a surety, a life changer.
In this context, one instance which immediately comes to mind is the solar paint. Futurism revealed how a team of researchers from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) have developed a paint that can be used to generate clean energy. The paint combines the titanium oxide already used in many wall paints with a new compound: synthetic molybdenum-sulphide. The latter acts like the silica gel packaged with many consumer products to keep them free from damage by absorbing moisture.
According to a report on RMIT’s website, the material absorbs solar energy as well as moisture from the surrounding air. “It can then split the water into hydrogen and oxygen, collecting the hydrogen for use in fuel cells or to power a vehicle.”
Even though the paint isn’t expected to be commercially viable within the next five years, lead researcher Dr Torben Daeneke told Inverse he believes the end product will be cheap to produce. “The paint would be effective in a variety of climates, from damp environments to hot and dry ones near large bodies of water. Any place that has water vapor in the air, even remote areas far from water, can produce fuel”, he added.
The incredible part is that once the paint is available for use, any surface can be painted and transformed into an energy producing structure.
Speaking of powering homes, in yet another instance, a group of researchers at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Roorkee, found that a pigment found in the fruit jamun (Syzygium cumini) absorbs large amounts of sunlight. The scientists, who have been experimenting with the pigment called anthocyanin, believe that using it for mass production could bring down solar panel costs. The results of the study were published in the Journal of Photovoltaics
“We extracted the pigment using ethanol and found that anthocyanin was a great absorber of sunlight,” Soumitra Satapathi, assistant professor at IIT-Roorkee was quoted as saying.
Currently, most of the solar cells are made of either single crystal silicon or polycrystalline silicon. While polycrystalline is more efficient, it is also more expensive. The researchers are using the jamun pigment for a new kind—-dye-sensitised solar cells. If the dye-sensitised solar cell can be made more efficient, it could bring down the cost of a solar panel by 40% and provide power to homes or areas which grapple with shortage.
Going a step further in cost reduction is a new process invented by Irish firm Nines Photovoltaics. According to a report in The Irish Times, current technology uses a wet chemical process to etch away layers of silicon from a crystalline wafer to create solar cells. Nines’ new process is an atmospheric pressure dry etching technology that not only cuts costs but speeds up production, makes cells more efficient because they are darker and trap more light, and uses chemicals that are classed as having zero global warming potential. Furthermore, it will allow for inline factory processes, rather than batch processing, which is more expensive.
For manufacturers, the new process could cut costs by up to 25 per cent. For major producers, that could translate into €20 million in annual savings. In an industry that is fiercely competitive and has claimed a few scalps over the years, cutting costs and therefore increasing margins for manufacturers is a welcome thing, the report added.
In the near future, the addressable market opportunity for dry etching production machines is estimated at over $1 billion.
Additionally, there have been innovations which have been successful in making solar panels more efficient than before. At the Technion Israel Institute of Technology, researchers achieved a breakthrough in solar cell technology and it can boost the efficiency of the existing photovoltaics by 70% or more.
Usually, the amount of sunlight solar cells can convert into usable energy is limited to around 30%, with many existing solar panels falling short of that due to less than optimal conditions. However, the Technion team developed new thermodynamic tools that work to capture energy currently lost, and convert it to electricity, thereby increasing a solar cell’s efficiency to as much as 50%, Inhabitat reported.
The university research team which is based in Haifa, Israel, created a photoluminescence material that absorbs radiation from the sun, converts the heat and light from the sun into an “ideal” radiation. This illuminates the photovoltaic cell and enables higher conversion efficiency. As a result, a conventional solar cell’s 30% efficiency rate is increased to 50%.
In the last decade or so, solar has become synonymous with being a clean and bankable source of power. In the present context, it has become affordable as well. Also, its reach is immense, with solar lighting up remote corners of the globe. Additionally, its ability to come in handy for people in a crisis or hit by a calamity is showing up as well. A recent example of teenagers making a tent which is solar powered for migrants made the news.
Furthermore, for countries suffering at the hands of a natural disaster, Professor Paul Dastoor from the University of Newcastle in New South Wales developed a printed solar panel that can be shipped out in bulk to populations which are in need of immediate clean energy, edie.net reported.
Dastoor’s innovation prints electronic ink onto clear plastic sheets, which are then fitted to panels made from glass to maintain the lightweight aspect. The prints can be produced for less than $10 per square metre and may be up for sale in the next three years.
These are just some of the examples which reaffirm the credibility of solar power when harnessed effectively. Moreover, they go on to prove that even the most unusual of sources can be efficiently tapped into, to power homes with little access to electricity. Surely, a game changer this.
Sapna Gopal is an independent journalist who writes and blogs on renewable energy