The future gets flexible on solar

Solar genii
The genii was far happier with his energy efficient, solar-powered carpet.

Illustration by Mike McRae

With thanks from Australian CSIRO ‘Science by Email

“With the exceptions of nuclear and geothermal energy, all of the energy we use in society originates in the Sun. Even the fossil fuels we burn for fuel and electricity were once plants that captured sunlight for growth. So for our future energy, it makes perfect sense to go straight to the source.

There are a few ways to collect sunlight with current technology. One way is to concentrate its heat to boil water or oil to turn a turbine. Some innovative methods rely on sunlight to feed algae or bacteria, which in turn create hydrogen gas. However for many, the most familiar method uses solar cells.

Solar – or ‘photovoltaic’ – cells use sunlight to create electricity by bumping electrons from one place to another. The first example of photovoltaic chemistry dates as far back as 1883, however for every 100 joules (a unit of energy) of sunlight put into this first solar cell, only 1 joule of electricity could be created.

Today’s cells are far more efficient, with many types converting about 33 per cent of the sunlight into useful energy without creating any greenhouse gas emissions. While this is fantastic for the planet, cells are still rather expensive to produce, not to mention the space we’d need for a huge number of them to satisfy our energy hungry world.

While costs come down as the technology is mass produced, concern about the amount of space needed might have its solution in research being done in the US.

Materials scientists have discovered a way of printing tiny silicon wafers onto a flexible material, allowing the panel to bend and fold easily. This allows new applications as well as making it easy to be transported. Importantly, the material could be made thin enough to be transparent – in the future your windows may power your house!

The concept of creating flexible, transparent solar cells is far from new. However, previous attempts have reduced the cell’s efficiency. The US researchers say by using conventional single crystal silicon, their version remains as effective as the traditional, rigid variety.

With climate change a massive concern that isn’t going away, alternative energy technology like this is essential for a sustainable future. And besides, imagine how cool it would be if the fabric of your school bag could charge your mobile phone!”

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