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The solar power of the future?

The idea that good ideas can be made even better is the basis for all progress, and right now solar power is very much in the sights of the world’s next wave of would-be innovators.

Scientists in Wales, for example, are striving to slim down solar cells, making them cheaper and less intensive as far as raw materials go. Dr Trystan Watson, who leads the Swansea team, makes a compelling case for striving to improve solar power in the UK and beyond:

“It is important that we increase our capabilities of using the sun as an energy source. This research project is dedicated to developing and delivering improved materials to make solar more environmentally sustainable cells that can be manufactured at scale so that the UK manufacturing industries can turn this technology into creating wealth and jobs.”

Taking a different approach is John Rogers at the University of Illinois, who wants to upgrade the amount of sunlight that’s converted to electrical energy via a new type of solar cell – or more specifically, four cells of different materials stacked on top of each other.

He’s also come up with a way to get around the fact the semiconducting materials involved in the new concept are pricey: by using hundreds of thousands of tiny dots of the ‘stacks’ with cheap glass lenses to focus sunlight onto them, rather than the traditional blanket covering of cells.

The Economist suggests that taking into account the implication the new design could generate electricity cheaper than coal-fired generators; this could be a large-scale solar option that could work without any subsidy. Not to mention the fact that the free space on the panels can be used for art – something that might counter the aesthetic dilemma posed by our blogger Julian.

Additionally, a Spanish company is floating the idea of water-filled glass spheres, replacing solar PV cells. The ball lens concept used a motion system to focus sunlight onto a tiny, efficient cell, and can fit snugly into the walls of buildings. At this stage, ambitions are still quite small, with only a smartphone charger for under £100 available to buy.

There are no issues with viewing things on a grand scale for Harvard Physics professor, Federico Capasso, who is looking at powering the world by harvesting infrared light emitted from the surface of the earth into space. He compares his idea of the emissive energy harvester (EEH) to both solar thermal and solar PV, meaning both heat and electricity-generating options could be available if this audacious concept gets off the ground. In Capasso’s own words:

It’s not at all obvious, at first . . . To generate power by emitting, not by absorbing light, that’s weird. It makes sense physically once you think about it, but it’s highly counterintuitive. We’re talking about the use of physics at the nanoscale for a completely new application.”

Given this is just a tiny snapshot of current research and development out there, it’s quite possible that our own conception of ‘solar power’ might change dramatically over the coming years.

Gary Hartley is Energy Saving Trust's expert blogger. He has extensive experience researching and writing on a number of topics, with particular expertise in sustainable energy, policy, literature and sport. As well as providing regular blog content, Gary has also been published in numerous magazines and journals.

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