Solar power was in a constant state of innovation in 2017, with new advances in solar panel technology announced almost every week. In the past year alone, there have been milestones in solar efficiency, solar energy storage, wearable solar tech and solar design tech.
Improvements in design and configuration, energy storage, efficiency, and battery size have created opportunities for solar energy in a variety of situations, some of which you have probably not considered—including off-grid scenarios that can help you survive emergency situations. Below are few examples of innovative, low-cost ways solar energy is being used to enhance our daily lives.
One of the problems with solar cells is that they reflect a certain percentage of the sunlight that falls on them. Part of the reflectance is from the surface of the cell and part is from smoothed silicon structures inside the cell. The problem is that the light that reflects back out is not usable by the cell. University researchers in Japan have developed an anti-reflective coating that produces tiny sub-micron-sized silicon pyramid structures that reduces surface reflectance to just 3 percent. In addition, the researchers created light-trapping micro-structures that trap infrared light within the cell, which increased the energy efficiency of solar cells to 19.8 percent.
Solar skin design
Luckily, one new venture has started. Sistine Solar, a Boston-based design firm, is making major strides with the concept of aesthetic enhancement that allow solar panels to have a customized look. The MIT startup has created a “solar skin” product that makes it possible for solar panels to match the appearance of a roof without interfering with panel efficiency or production. Sistine Solar’s skin product is expected to hit U.S. markets in 2018 and will help to re-brand solar panels as a luxury product, not just a home efficiency upgrade.
In developing countries, 24-hour electricity isn’t guaranteed, and in many cases, there is no electrical grid. “Private companies have been manufacturing solar-powered vaccine refrigerators so healthcare workers in remote areas can administer critical medication to those who need it,” states Charlie Gay, director of the Solar Energy Technologies Office for the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE). “This technology solution has been saving lives for more than four decades.”
Though wearable solar devices are nothing new (solar-powered watches and other gadgets have been on the market for several years), 2017 saw an innovation in solar textiles: tiny solar panels can now be stitched into the fabric of clothing. The wearable solar products of the past, like solar-powered watches, have typically been made with hard plastic material. This new textile concept makes it possible for solar to expand into home products like window curtains and dynamic consumer clean tech like heated car seats. This emerging solar technology is credited to textile designer Marianne Fairbanks and chemist Trisha Andrew.
USB cell phone chargers can charge a phone to almost full after only a few hours exposure to UV sunlight. These portable solar panels are about the size of a tablet and can also charge GPS trackers, tablets, or even laptops. They can be hooked on backpacks to collect solar energy as you walk, making them ideal for outdoor excursions.
Solar-powered tents are essentially larger versions of solar-powered backpacks. The tents have imbedded photovoltaic cells that store solar energy by day, which is then used to illuminate the tent at night and charge or power devices and small appliances, including heaters. The U.S. Army has a version that can generate up to 2 kilowatts of power a day
A major technical advancement in electronics is the ability to print materials in ultra-thin layers that are thickness controlled. This method is called transfer printing. Researchers in South Korea have found a way to apply transfer printing to the manufacturing process of perovskite (calcium titanium oxide) solar cells. Perovskite is highly efficient at converting sunlight to electricity, which is why it is a very desirable material for the construction of solar cells. Even though the material can be sprayed onto solar cells to create thin, flexible cells, perovskites are full of defects. By using transfer printing techniques that control the super-thin layers, researchers have produces ultra-thin solar cells that have achieved a 22.1 percent efficiency level.