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Solar Panels

The newest developments to solar panels are really turning the solar industry on its head. Silicone solar panels have been difficult and expensive to manufacture, and increasing their efficiency was thought to be the answer to their prohibitive high cost. There have been leaps and bounds in their efficiency, only five years ago they could only convert about 5% of sunlight into electricity. Now that number has passed the 50% efficiency mark, but the price has not dropped. Most people can only afford solar panels with help from tax rebates and government stimulus, or by leasing their roof to a solar panel installer and buying cheaper electricity from them. Leasing roof tops is becoming popular with property owners, but they are still paying another company for power. The answer to our power needs isn’t necessarily efficiency. Incredibly cheap, yet still effective, photovoltaic paint, and flexible printed panels may be the answer.

Researchers at Swansea University in the UK, led by Dave Worsley, are developing paint that when applied to a metal surface produces electricity. Every surface of a building can be generating electricity without any external hardware or expensive solar panels. They discovered the idea almost accidentally while they were studying why paint breaks down in order to create a more durable paint for steel surfaces. What they noticed gave them an idea that could change the way we thing about generating power. So far their paint is only about 5% efficient, but when you consider that every surface, even areas without direct sunlight, can generate electricity it is easy to see what a benefit that would be.

The New Jersey Institute of Technology has developed a similar paint that is applied to flexible plastic sheets. They are using nanotechnology to create a paint that creates a snake like structure for transmitting electrons, when sunlight strikes the polymer backing it grabs onto the suns photons and it releases electrons embedded in the paint. A New Zealand scientist has developed an organic dye that mimics a plants light harvesting pigment, chlorophyll. Its main component is titanium dioxide which is non-toxic and is commonly found in paint. It is also cheap and widely available. It can be incorporated into paint, printing processes and even clothing. Imagine printing solar panels from you inkjet printer at home, and plugging your cell phone into your jacket to charge it.

Spinach could actually become quite essential to the solar industry. MIT has developed a synthetic photovoltaic cell based skin whose main component for generating electricity is a protein found in spinach. Photosystem I is the name of the protein, and it has shown to have some very favorable characteristic that can be applied to generating electricity very cheaply and efficiently.

Collecting energy from the sun is proving to be the most efficient way of meeting our energy needs. There are even ideas to convert our existing asphalt infrastructure, all of our roads and parking lots, into solar-thermal collectors. Think how hot a parking lot gets on a sunny day. Now imagine thin tubes filled with liquid weaving a few inches under that pavement. As that liquid heats up during the day it is pumped to a steam generator and converted to electricity. Now imagine how many roads we have. There are over 400 million miles of road and counting, not including parking lots.


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