Solar Spring: Growing With the Sun

sunThe alternative energy sector continues to motor forward with its impressive technological advancement, deflecting big oil and other sharp toothed corporate giants at every turn. This is especially true in the leaps and bounds of the solar capture industry. Starting out as a laughable, cumbersome attempt, solar cells have now found their way into durable, roll-out solar film, space mission energy pods, portable backpack and foldable recharging station applications as well as municipal retrofitting to power traffic signs, emergency communication and public lighting. Yet, solar technology has not stopped there. Currently, solar designers study the process in which plants convert sunlight into sugar (photosynthesis) and incorporate this cellular building block into a new solar capture tool.

The Long and Short of Nano-Tech

Solar capture has mostly been made up of plastic and glass structures creating a vulnerable application that could easily be damaged and/or challenged by inclement weather.  In addition, these materials are difficult to recycle when they run their course therefore detracting from their original intent of sustainability. Georgia Tech College of Engineering, in collaboration with Purdue School of Materials Engineering, have found a way to change the materials used in solar capture to potentially make it a more eco-friendly, biodegradable process. Experiments have shown great promise while using a wood based design called cellulose nano-material (CN’s). It is derived from trees and created into ultra thin solar cells capable of easily breaking down back to its source or being recycled into new cells. Georgia Tech professor, Bernard Kippelen, comments, “Organic solar cells must be recyclable, otherwise we are simply solving one problem — less dependence on fossil fuels — while creating another, a technology that produces energy from renewable sources but is not disposable at the end of its life-cycle.”

Working It

The CN material holds optically transparent solar cells that enable light permeation which is then absorbed into an organic semiconductor. The full energy spectrum that glass and plastic have been able to attain is about 10.6 percent of the energy it receives from the sun. The CN percentage has currently reached 2.7 under its continuing research and development phase. The first phase was to find a viable replacement for the current eco-unfriendly glass and plastic materials. Kippelen continues, “Our next steps will be to work toward improving the power-conversion efficiency [to] over 10 percent, levels similar to [those seen for] cells fabricated on glass or petroleum-based substrates.”  It is estimated that this new green technology will be capable of producing large-scale applications within the next five years. Kippelen wraps it up, “The development and performance of organic substrates in solar technology continues to improve, providing engineers with a good indication of future applications.”

Within the solar field, CN tech is like two hands shaking one another. This green within green approach is opening up a whole new variety of possibilities; layering eco-solutions beyond the conventional elimination of one thing to replace it with another. It is truly a ‘think outside the box’ mission.

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