Recent Developments in Transparent Photovoltaic Solar Cells
In April 2015, MIT startup Ubiquitous Energy announced that its fully transparent solar cell will soon hit the market. Unlike previous generations of transparent solar cells, which were partially opaque, Ubiquitous Energy’s solar cell is as clear as untinted glass or clean water. This solar cell was created at Michigan State University in 2014 by the research team of Richard Lunt, who co founded Ubiquitous Energy.
Solar panels have been available since the 1950s, but they have seen limited use because of their large size and inability to blend with the aesthetics of surrounding buildings. Since then, there has been a push to develop unobtrusive solar technologies. Solar shingles, which have been commercially available since 2005, are roof shingles that generate electricity from sunlight while resembling ordinary asphalt shingles. Highly transparent solar cells were developed in 2012, but these were only 70 percent transparent and exhibited a noticeable grayish tint.
A New Approach
The older solar cells achieved partial transparency by shrinking the photovoltaic components within the solar cell material. Ubiquitous Energy’s solar cell works using a different mechanism to convert light into electricity. The bulk of the solar cell itself isn’t a photovoltaic material; rather, the cell is a transparent luminescent solar concentrator (TLSC). Organic salts within the TLSC absorb invisible ultraviolet and infrared light while allowing visible light to pass through. The absorbed energy is then emitted as infrared light of a different wavelength. Ordinary photovoltaic strips located at the edges of the solar cell then convert the emitted infrared light to electricity. The solar cell appears completely transparent because the organic salts do not absorb or emit visible light.
While traditional solar panels can convert a third of the incoming sunlight to electricity, Ubiquitous Energy’s solar cells currently have an efficiency of just one percent. However, the company believes that an efficiency of 10 percent is possible. This efficiency does not sound substantial, but over large surface areas, the generated electricity can add up. The windows covering skyscrapers represent a massive untapped potential for generating solar energy.
Looking Toward a Sustainable Future
The use of solar cells is a sustainable way to generate energy. Transparent solar cells can reduce our dependence on electricity generated from nonrenewable fossil fuels. Because the sun’s energy is not depleted, solar energy is a renewable energy source. The use of fossil fuels pollute the environment because the fuels must be burned to produce energy. In contrast, no waste or harmful byproducts are created when solar cells are used to generate electricity.
Because transparent solar cells are unobtrusive, their widespread adoption is possible. Today’s energy-efficient windows allow visible light to pass through while reflecting infrared light that can overheat a house. If this infrared light can instead be harnessed to generate electricity, then homeowners can save money on utilities. Transparent solar cells can also be used on smartphone screens without obscuring the display or affecting the touch functionality. These cells can charge a smartphones’ batteries, offsetting the heavy battery drain of common mobile activities such as internet browsing, gaming and GPS navigation. The upcoming iPhone 7 is rumored to incorporate solar cells in its display, so such technology may be around the corner.
This article was composed by Alex Lee. Alex is currently studysing Electrical Engineering for his bachelor degree at Colorado University. In his free time, Alex enjoys working and contributing content to Ablaze Energy LLC – a Denver based solar solution startup company.
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