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5 innovative ideas for harnessing solar power

Top Five

With the anticipation that solar panels may be part of a climate change solution, here are our top 5 innovations making solar power more exploitable.

As more people become aware of our pressing climate issues, finding sustainable energy alternatives becomes more prominent. Consequently, the demand for solar power is increasing. A 2018 YouGov survey also found that 62 per cent of Brits want to fit solar into their energy plan and 60 per cent were willing to buy an energy storage device. In the UK, over one third of households are expected to use some form of solar energy by 2020. 

The difficulty remains finding systems that are both sustainable and efficient enough to meet our growing energy needs. Some argue that such forms of “sustainable development” representan oxymoron. Thankfully, we continue to spot innovations to harness solar energy, including solar sailing for space travel and indoor solar panels.

With the anticipation that solar panels may be part of a climate change solution, here are our top 5 innovations from recent months that are helping make solar power more exploitable. 

1. TRANSPARENT SOLAR PANELS MAKE ANY OBJECT AN ENERGY COLLECTOR

Photo source Federico Beccari on Unsplash

Developed by a team of researchers at Michigan State University, the transparent luminescent solar concentrator absorbs non-visible wavelengths of light. The transparency allows for the concentrator’s use on almost any surface, potentially transforming architecture and screen-based technology.

The luminescent panel absorbs ultraviolet and near-infrared light and then guides it to the edge of the plastic. Thin strips of photovoltaic solar cells then absorb the light and convert it into electricity. 

The team, led by associate professor of chemical engineering and materials science Richard Lunt, is currently working to improve the conversion efficiency rate of the concentrator. It currently performs at one per cent efficiency, with the goal being five per cent.

If applied to the estimated five billion square metres of glass surfaces in the United States, the transparent panelling could provide around 40 per cent of the country’s energy. That is approximately the same potential estimated for traditional rooftop solar panels. 

2. SPACECRAFT USES SOLAR POWER TO ORBIT EARTH

Photo source Planetary Society

The US-based Planetary Society has deployed a solar-powered spacecraft. LightSail 2 is the first spacecraft to orbit the Earth propelled only by solar power, according to the Planetary Society. 

LightSail 2 features a small, bread-loaf-sized satellite and four large solar sails. The sails’ mirrored surfaces capture energy from the sun. The energy is used to propel the spacecraft forward, a process known as solar sailing. The solar energy provides a slow but constant push forward, which can gain speed as the spacecraft travels. 

LightSail 2 aims to show that solar sailing is a viable means of propulsion for small spacecraft known as CubeSats. “We are advancing space science and exploration. We are democratising space. We are innovating,” Planetary Society CEO Bill Nye said.

The LightSail 2 was launched into space on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket. It will spend a month getting into orbit and remain in space for one year. The project cost €6.3 million and was financed by Planetary Society members, private citizens and a KickStarter campaign.

3. SOLAR PANELS WITH STYLE MOVE INTO THE LIVING ROOM

Photo source Inter IKEA Systems B.V., Little Sun

Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson is developing solar panel devices designed to fit comfortably in one’s living room (and look good, too). His Germany-based social business project Little Sun will work with Swedish furniture giant IKEA on producing energy-gathering products for the home.

Prototypes for the Sammanlänkad product line are made up of solar-powered batteries, shaped like circular domes roughly the size of a human hand. They can be attached to windows, charging docks and lights. The plan is for a 2021 release in all IKEA markets.

Little Sun was founded by Eliasson and engineer Frederik Ottesen with the goal of bringing sustainable and affordable energy to global communities, particularly those in remote locations. Its first project was to create a portable solar lamp for those without electricity in Ethiopia.

Now, by partnering with a major retailer, it may help push domestic solar devices into the mainstream.  

“We want to connect the world by sharing the power of the sun in order to promote a sustainable lifestyle,” Eliasson said. “The collaboration with IKEA is a huge opportunity to raise awareness for energy access and the urgent need for global solutions, while at the same time working with world-leading product designers.”

4. A PHOTOVOLTAIC STORAGE SYSTEM FOR PORTABLE SOLAR POWER

Photo source EET

Germany-based EET recently won a James Dyson Award for SolMate, a photovoltaic panel and storage system that can be self-installed. The company hopes that its innovation will allow anyone to use solar power almost anywhere.

While everyone agrees there is a need to transition to greater use of renewable energy, this can be difficult to achieve on an individual level. SolMate is designed to measure the energy consumption of a household and supply self-generated solar energy in response. The system consists of lightweight photovoltaic panels and a compact storage unit. The panels are connected to the storage unit with a cable. The storage unit itself is simply plugged into a standard power socket.

Electricity generated by SolMate’s photovoltaic panels flows directly into the home as needed, and does not connect to the wider power grid. Excess electricity is stored in the compact energy-storage unit for later. The system also comes with an app that allows users to monitor their energy usage.

SolMate is intended for use by urban apartment dwellers who lack a roof to attach solar panels. The compact panels can be placed on a balcony or any outdoor space. It is also transportable, making it possible for people to generate power on the go. According to the company, SolMate, “will allow wider sections of the population to actively participate in the energy revolution”.

5. LIGHTWEIGHT, FLEXIBLE SOLAR PANEL DESIGNED FOR INDOOR USE

Photo source Photo by Sam X on Unsplash

A team of scientists from China and Sweden’s Linköping University have created a new material that generates electricity from ambient lighting.

The solar cell an organic photovoltaic (OPV) is made using a mixture of carbon-based components, allowing it to absorb wavelengths of light commonly found indoors.

Because the molecules are dissolved in ink and printed on thin sheets of plastic, the solar cells are exceptionally flexible and lightweight. This makes them ideal for indoor use as they can be deployed on a range of surfaces – in addition to the usual applications on walls and windows. 

Previously, OPVs have been less efficient than silicon solar cells in converting light to electricity. In tests, the researchers recorded an efficiency rate of up to 26 per cent for light at an intensity of 1000 lux. For light of intensity between 200 and 1000 lux, the efficiency rate was 23 per cent. All of which bodes well for further development.