Solar Energy: From Cellphones to Cities

The science behind the modern solar panel was first observed in 1839 by French physicist Edmond Becquerel, who discovered the photovoltaic effect in which an electric current is produced from light exposure. Since then, the technology behind solar energy engineering has advanced significantly and continues to take on a diverse number of forms and functions.

Over the past several years, researchers have championed the possibilities of transparent solar panels to increase energy production. Currently, classic opaque solar panels, often placed on rooftops, dominate the industry. Research from Michigan State University proposes to greatly expand the possible surface area for solar materials by including transparent materials, such as windows on buildings and cars, and screens on personal devices. Transparent solar panels are only approximately a third of the efficiency of opaque solar panels, but research is promising for improving energy conversion efficiency. Even considering the lower efficiency rate in this form, the amount of usable glass surface in the United States is estimated to be 5 billion to 7 billion square meters, which would significantly increase solar energy output.

Researchers at MIT are also pushing the boundaries for solar energy materials that could be used for personal devices such as cell phones and tablets. The recent development in a clear conductive coating has increased solar cell’s efficiency tenfold and dramatically improved the delicate substance’s stability. Currently, most solar energy devices use a material called indium titanium oxide, or ITO. While ITO is very conductive, it is also quite brittle and easily cracked, which is not ideal for high-use objects like touch screens. This new flexible material, an organic polymer called PEDOT, can be layered with a perovskite-based solar cell with only a few nanometers addition to its overall thickness. Research is still ongoing to improve efficiency, but this material could be easily manufactured and incorporated on a mass scale for solar powered personal devices.

Another methodology being developed jointly by Ghent University in Belgium and the University of the Free State in South Africa would concentrate non-visible light into small solar panels on personal devices. The glass touch screen would include specific phosphor materials in order to redirect ultraviolet and infrared light into very small solar panels mounted on the side of cell phone or tablet. By doing so, the device would not have to change significantly in appearance but could be charged via solar energy. In the next decade, consumers may be able to recharge their phone by simply holding it in the sunlight. This research may also be applied to electrical cars by shifting light shining on the windows to solar panels on the side to provide additional energy.

Solar energy is innovating outside of universities as well, especially as more and more companies begin to invest in large scale sustainable alternatives. Amazon announced in 2019 their plan to run on 80% renewable energy by 2024, which would scale into 100% renewable energy by 2030. The tech giant will be launching solar energy projects in Spain and in two locations in the USA, Illinois and Virginia. The combined power production from these projects is estimated to be 329MW in solar energy.

One of the drawbacks for large scale investments into renewable energy grids like solar has been the unpredictable element of weather patterns as it may be difficult to estimate the day by day contribution of solar panels to the electrical grid. To tackle this problem, innovators are turning to forecasting technology, big data, and machine learning to better predict energy output from solar energy. The cloud imaging cameras used by IBM’s Hybrid Renewable Energy Forecasting (HyREF) solutions can predict the weather weeks in advance, and consequently increases the amount of renewable energy stored and delivered to the grid by up to 10 percent.

As the cost of production decreases, and the demand for sustainable alternatives increases, more and more solar energy materials, devices, and systems will continue to be launched commercially. From handheld cellphones to large scale power grids, renewable energy sources like solar will soon become ubiquitous in the modern world.