Windows Will Now Generate Power

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

MIT engineers have reported a new approach to harnessing the sun's energy that could allow just that. The research work involves the creation of a novel 'solar concentrator'. "Light is collected over a large area [like a window] and gathered, or concentrated, at the edges," explains Marc A. Baldo, leader of the work and the Esther and Harold E. Edgerton career development associate professor of electrical engineering.
The MIT solar concentrator involves a mixture of two or more dyes that is essentially painted onto a pane of glass or plastic. The dyes work together to absorb light across a range of wavelengths, which is then re-emitted at a different wavelength and transported across the pane to waiting solar cells at the edges. As a result, rather than covering a roof with expensive solar cells (the semiconductor devices that transform sunlight into electricity), the cells only need to be around the edges of a flat glass panel. In addition, the focused light increases the electrical power obtained from each solar cell by a factor of over 40.

Because the system is simple to manufacture, the team believes that it could be implemented within three years--even added onto existing solar-panel systems to increase their efficiency by 50 per cent for minimal additional cost. That, in turn, would substantially reduce the cost of solar electricity.

The MIT engineers, experts in optical techniques developed for lasers and organic light-emitting diodes, realised that perhaps those same advances could be applied to solar concentrators. The result? A mixture of dyes in specific ratios, applied only to the surface of the glass, that allows some level of control over light absorption and emission. "We made it so the light can travel a much longer distance," Jon Mapel, a co-researcher, says. "We were able to substantially reduce light transport losses, resulting in a tenfold increase in the amount of power converted by the solar cells."

In addition to Baldo, the researchers involved are Michael Currie, Jon Mapel, and Timothy Heidel, all graduate students in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and Shalom Goffri, a postdoctoral associate in MIT's Research Laboratory of Electronics. This work was also supported by the National Science Foundation. Baldo is also affiliated with MIT's Research Laboratory of Electronics, Microsystems Technology Laboratories, and Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies.

"Professor Baldo's project utilises innovative design to achieve superior solar conversion without optical tracking," says Dr. Aravinda Kini, program manager in the Office of Basic Energy Sciences in the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science, a sponsor of the work. "This accomplishment demonstrates the critical importance of innovative basic research in bringing about revolutionary advances in solar energy utilisation in a cost-effective manner."

Solar concentrators in use today 'track the sun to generate high optical intensities, often by using large mobile mirrors that are expensive to deploy and maintain', Baldo and colleagues write in Science. They further wrote, "solar cells at the focal point of the mirrors must be cooled, and the entire assembly wastes space around the perimeter to avoid shadowing neighboring concentrators."

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