Aug 26, 2015
Some day, this might generate electricity. Flickr user Ricardo Wang
While wind may be one of the most economical power sources out there, photovoltaic solar energy has a big advantage: it can go small. While wind gets cheaper as turbines grow larger, the PV hardware scales down to fit wherever we have infrastructure. In fact, simply throwing solar on our existing building stock could generate a very large amount of carbon-free electricity.
But that also highlights solar’s weakness: we have to install it after the infrastructure is in place, and that installation adds considerably to its cost. Now, some researchers have come up with some hardware that could allow photovoltaics to be incorporated into a basic building component: windows. The solar windows would filter out a small chunk of the solar spectrum and convert roughly a third of it to electricity.
As you’re probably aware, photovoltaic hardware has to absorb light in order to work, and a typical silicon panel appears black. So, to put any of that hardware (and its supporting wiring) into a window that doesn’t block the view is rather challenging. One option is to use materials that only capture a part of the solar spectrum, but these tend to leave the light that enters the building with a distinctive tint.
The new hardware takes a very different approach. The entire window is filled with a diffuse cloud of quantum dots that absorb almost all of the solar spectrum. As a result, the “glass” portion of things simply dims the light passing through the window slightly. (The quantum dots are actually embedded in a transparent polymer, but that could be embedded in or coat glass.) The end result is what optics people call a neutral density filter, something often used in photography. In fact, tests with the glass show that the light it transmits meets the highest standards for indoor lighting.
Of course, simply absorbing the light doesn’t help generate electricity. And, in fact, the quantum dots aren’t used to generate the electricity. Instead, the authors generated quantum dots made of copper, indium, and selenium, covered in a layer of zinc sulfide. (The authors note that there are no toxic metals involved here.) These dots absorb light across a broad band of spectrum, but re-emit it at a specific wavelength in the infrared. The polymer they’re embedded in acts as a waveguide to take many of the photons to the thin edge of the glass.
And here’s where things get interesting: the wavelength of infrared the quantum dots emit happens to be very efficiently absorbed by a silicon photovoltaic device. So, if you simply place these devices along the edges of the glass, they’ll be fed a steady diet of photons.
The authors model the device’s behavior and find that nearly half the infrared photons end up being fed the photovoltaic devices (equal amounts get converted to heat or escape the window entirely). It’s notable that the devices are small, though (about 12cm squares)—larger panes would presumably allow even more photons to escape.
The authors tested a few of the devices, one that filtered out 20 percent of the sunlight and one that only captured 10 percent. The low-level filter sent about one percent of the incident light to the sides, while the darker one sent over three percent.
There will be losses in the conversion to electricity as well, so this isn’t going to come close to competing with a dedicated panel on a sunny roof. Which is fine, because it’s simply not meant to. Any visit to a major city will serve as a good reminder that we’re regularly building giant walls of glass that currently reflect vast amounts of sunlight, blinding or baking (or both!) the city’s inhabitants on a sunny day. If we could cheaply harvest a bit of that instead, we’re ahead of the game.
Nature Nanotechnology, 2015. DOI: 10.1038/NNANO.2015.178 (About DOIs).
See the full article here.
Please help promote STEM in your local schools.
Stem Education Coalition
Ars Technica was founded in 1998 when Founder & Editor-in-Chief Ken Fisher announced his plans for starting a publication devoted to technology that would cater to what he called “alpha geeks”: technologists and IT professionals. Ken’s vision was to build a publication with a simple editorial mission: be “technically savvy, up-to-date, and more fun” than what was currently popular in the space. In the ensuing years, with formidable contributions by a unique editorial staff, Ars Technica became a trusted source for technology news, tech policy analysis, breakdowns of the latest scientific advancements, gadget reviews, software, hardware, and nearly everything else found in between layers of silicon.
Ars Technica innovates by listening to its core readership. Readers have come to demand devotedness to accuracy and integrity, flanked by a willingness to leave each day’s meaningless, click-bait fodder by the wayside. The result is something unique: the unparalleled marriage of breadth and depth in technology journalism. By 2001, Ars Technica was regularly producing news reports, op-eds, and the like, but the company stood out from the competition by regularly providing long thought-pieces and in-depth explainers.
And thanks to its readership, Ars Technica also accomplished a number of industry leading moves. In 2001, Ars launched a digital subscription service when such things were non-existent for digital media. Ars was also the first IT publication to begin covering the resurgence of Apple, and the first to draw analytical and cultural ties between the world of high technology and gaming. Ars was also first to begin selling its long form content in digitally distributable forms, such as PDFs and eventually eBooks (again, starting in 2001).