The new solar cell which is completely transparent could turn every single window or screen in your home into a potential power source. To clarify when I say screen, I mean that the front of your smartphone could become a tiny solar panel if this technology can be made widely available.
Researchers at the University of Michigan State have been conducting this research for some time and have finally had some success in making this a viable option. Unlike other “transparent” solar cells that have been reported on in the past, this one truly is transparent, as you can see in the photo above. According to Richard Lunt, the lead researcher on this project, the team who developed this breakthrough are confident that the transparent solar panels can be efficiently deployed in a wide range of settings, from “tall buildings with lots of windows or any kind of mobile device that demands high aesthetic quality like a phone or e-reader.”
In terms of the science a completely transparent solar panel may appear like an oxymoron as a solar panel requires the taking of light so as to produce energy. This is why the previous attempts have only been partially transparent at best and they usually leave a “colourful shadow” underneath where the solar panel is.
To get around this limitation, the Michigan State researchers were forced to use a slightly different technique for gathering sunlight. Instead of trying to create a transparent solar cell, which is apparently impossible, they use a “transparent luminescent solar concentrator”, TLSC. The TLSC consists of organic salts that absorb up until recently were non-visible wavelengths of ultraviolet and infrared light, they then make these wavelengths glow at another wavelength of infrared light, also non-visible. This emitted infrared light is guided to the edge of plastic, where thin strips of conventional solar cells convert it into electricity.
Put in a slightly less scientific way they use natural salts to move light which would otherwise be invisible and not useful in solar energy anyway to another area of the cell. They then convert it to something which is useful and from there direct it to an ordinary solar cell where the light is converted to energy.
This new method for solar power currently has an efficiency of just over 1%, with the researchers at Michigan State hoping to get as high as 5%. Now that may not appear like much but if they were installed in every window in an office building or even in your own homes those numbers soon add up. On the point of smartphone covers whilst we may not be talking about an indefinite battery life it would hours to their current usage.
This might not appear like a massive breakthrough but this, if it can be made more effective, could mark a significant change in the way energy is produced. One of the largest knocks against solar power is that it requires the currently enormous and ugly panels to make it work. If we can come to a point where those massive panels can be scaled down to just the size of windows and not be obstructive, we are potentially opening the door to a future technology that none of us saw coming.