As carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere rise and climate change begins to take hold, there is an urgent need to turn to renewable methods of electricity generation. Solar power is one possible way of meeting our energy needs. Solar power panels are constantly being improved to make them more efficient at converting sunlight into energy. Let’s take a look at some of the recent technological improvements that are helping solar panels to become powerful devices for generating electricity.
Solar power has great potential for generating huge amounts of electricity. The amount of solar energy that falls onto the Earth’s surface in a single year is more than the total amount of energy stored in all the world’s fossil fuels and uranium. If we could only collect this energy and convert it into electricity, all of our energy problems could be solved. However, current solar panels only manage to convert about 15-20% of the sun’s energy that falls on them into electricity. Researchers all over the world are working to improve this figure so that solar panels can make a bigger contribution to meeting the world’s energy needs.
Turning Up the Heat
In 2010, engineers at Stanford University announced that they had come up with a way of using not only the sun’s light, but also its heat, to produce electricity. The traditional process of converting light to electrical current, which is known as the photovoltaic effect, is less efficient at high temperatures, but this new technology becomes more effective as the temperature rises. The addition of this technology to solar panels could help them to work effectively under a wider range of temperature conditions.
Researchers at Sharp Corporation announced in June 2013 that they had made an astonishing breakthrough. By changing the structure of a solar cell, the researchers managed to increase a record-breaking 44.4% efficiency for the conversion of sunlight into electricity. This remarkably high efficiency is achieved by using lenses to focus concentrated sunlight onto the multi-layered solar cells.
Self-Cleaning Solar Panels
One problem with solar panel efficiency is that the impressive performance that is achieved in the laboratory is rarely matched by experiences in the real world. Solar panels have to cope with changing weather conditions as well as everyday wear and tear. Even seemingly mundane issues such as dust can cause serious problems with solar efficiency.
A team of researchers at Boston University, led by Dr. Malay Mazumder, is addressing the problem of solar panels gathering dust and therefore becoming less able to perform at their best. The solution the researchers came up with uses sensors to detect when the panels are becoming dusty, and then electrifies the panel with a wave of electric charge to fling away the dust. The panel can be cleared of ninety percent of the dust in just two minutes.
The first application of this technology will be for solar-powered spacecraft that have to operate in the dusty environment of the Moon or Mars. However, the researchers say that it could also be very useful for solar panels down here on Earth.
Maximizing Solar Efficiency
In order to make solar panels work as well as possible, they have to be installed in the most effective possible way. Professor Kleissl from the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering has been studying how to use solar panels to the best of their potential. One important consideration is the direction that the solar panels face in; Professor Kleissl says that panels facing southwest, rather than due south, perform better because they experience a longer period of exposure to the sun. This orientation also means that solar panels are working at their maximum capacity during the late afternoon, when electricity demand is often at its highest.
By helping solar power panels to work more efficiently, these new technologies can make solar power a more realistic option for generating power all over the world, even in countries that don’t receive as much sunlight as others. Scientific research into solar power is ongoing, which means that using the sun’s light and heat to generate electricity is likely to become more and more effective over the coming decades.