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Since the beginning of the cleantech and sustainability movements, the sun has always been the most obvious choice to replace fossil fuels in powering our everyday lives. While the sun is the brightest object in the sky, solar energy hasn’t always been the brightest performer in the renewable energy portfolio.
Things are looking up however. As adoption, efficiency and installation has increased, costs have come down dramatically, strengthening the movement toward solar power. Photovoltaic cells are at their lowest prices ever and they continue to decrease in price as manufacturing techniques improve. In the United States, solar energy production is now measured in gigawatts and there are dozens more large generation facilities in the works across the country.
With solar technology possibly entering a golden age, researchers and entrepreneurs continue to innovate. Here are three projects using the sun to power the future:
An Artificial Leaf to Turn Water into Fuel
Scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab have recently come up with an “artificial leaf” that uses sunlight to split water molecules into oxygen and hydrogen, the latter of which can be used to run fuel cells.
Using titanium dioxide and silicon nanowires perfectly arranged in a grid like a microscopic orchard, the team there was able to mimic chloroplasts – the cell structures that give plants their green color and allow them to turn sunlight into sugar – and break water into its components.
While it is currently just as efficient as natural photosynthesis, that energy conversion is only a paltry 0.12%. In order to make the process commercially viable, efficiency will need to be improved by an order of magnitude.
Though most solar-powered vehicles aren’t exactly practical, both in terms of cost and efficiency, a southern California startup has come up with one that just might work: a solar electric scooter. With a top speed of only 15 miles per hour and a fully charged range of 20 miles, the scooter won’t become a mainstay for many commuters, but it an excellent emission-free way of running errands or visiting the beach. Through a current crowdfunding campaign on WhenYouWish, you can order your scooter for $1,500 and show the world you ride on sun power.
Refracting Sunlight for High-Efficiency Photovoltaics
A professor and his team at Caltech are working on new solar arrays that they claim will be able to generate twice as much energy as current designs. Though they have three versions in development, they all work on the premise that different photovoltaic materials are better at absorbing different wavelengths of light and that by using optical techniques more of the sun’s broad spectrum can be efficiently converted to energy.
As sunlight enters the device, it is directed through a reflective trough into a series of filters positioned at an angle. Each filter absorbs a specific wavelength of light while reflecting the rest to the next component. Think of it like peeling the layers off a rainbow: first the violet light is absorbed, then the blue, and so on until the red light leftover is taken in at the end.
Current photovoltaic cells are only able to convert about 20% of the light hitting them into usable energy. Once they determine which design is the most efficient, the Caltech team thinks they can hit a conversion efficiency of least 50%, blowing away the competition. Increased efficiency is the direction PV cells need to head too. As costs to produce them continue to plummet, it’s the other expenses involved in solar power – wiring, land, installation – that will become a factor. Fewer arrays that generate just as much energy will be critical.
Is your company utilizing sun power in any way? What is your business doing on the sustainability front?
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