Daily Archives: May 18, 2011
Traditionally, solar powered devices suffer from a two-fold problem. First, they have difficulty converting the light they capture to electricity. Second, they only capture a small band of wavelengths out of the wide range of wavelengths found in sunlight striking the Earth. Improving in either area can offer gains to the net power output (and efficiency) of a solar cell.
Researchers at the University of Missouri are claiming a breakthrough in the second category. They claim [press release] to have developed a device that can capture 90 percent of sunlight, versus the 20 percent that current photovoltaic (PV) panels capture.
To capture the wider range of wavelengths, Patrick Pinhero, associate professor of chemical engineering, used a special thin, moldable sheet of small antennas called nantenna. The resulting material converts heat to electricity and can be used both for industrial heat recycling and for solar designs. In solar designs it is capable of collecting both optical (visible) sunlight and the near infrared band sunlight that most cells miss.
Professor Pinhero collaborated with researchers at the Idaho National Laboratory and Garrett Moddel, an electrical engineering professor at the University of Colorado to develop a complete material with electronic devices capable of harvesting the heat and light collected by the nantenna.
Professor Pinhero is working to port the resulting device to a mass-producable design. He’s currently securing U.S. Department of Energy funding and money from private investors to accomplish this. To that end, he’s enlisted the help of Dennis Slafer of MicroContinuum, Inc., of Cambridge, Mass., a solar power and alternative energy firm.
“Our overall goal is to collect and utilize as much solar energy as is theoretically possible and bring it to the commercial market in an inexpensive package that is accessible to everyone,” Professor Pinhero states. “If successful, this product will put us orders of magnitudes ahead of the current solar energy technologies we have available to us today.”
You can’t fault Professor Pinhero for ambition. He says that within five years he should be able to deliver a finished material that complements traditional PV panel designs in rooftop installations, solar power plant installations, or rooftop car panels. This material would bump up the range of collected light, and by proxy bump up the cell’s net efficiency and power output.
The instructor expects to create a broad range of commercial spinoffs based on the technology. The spinoffs would be infrared (IR) detection based products, including contraband-identifying devices for airports and the military, optical computing, and infrared line-of-sight telecommunications.
India is the fifth largest electricity consumer in the world and the second fastest growing economy. With such a large market, the country’s progression toward renewable energy takes on added significance. According to Bloomberg, a recent report from KPMG suggests this change could happen sooner than many anticipate.
Current electricity prices average around 5.42 rupees, roughly 12 cents, per kilowatt hour, less than half the price of solar energy. However, India largely relies on fossil fuels for its energy, primarily coal. The country has long been a net importer, but the gap between domestic production and demand is growing steadily larger. Particularly as demand grows among other developing economies, the price of importing energy looks to rise as well.
KPMG suggests that under these conditions solar power could reach grid parity as soon as 2017. The government has announced a goal of installing at least 120,000 megawatts of solar panels by that year, but KPMG thinks the market alone could produce nearly 60,000 megawatts worth of developments within five years of reaching grid parity.
While coal provides the vast majority of India’s electricity production, hydroelectricity currently accounts for much of the remainder.