Tracking the Exciting World of Solar Energy Research

August 24, 2016 By Carl Weinschenk

sunSolar power is particularly newsworthy this summer. Tesla’s agreement to acquire SolarCity is a high profile sign that solar power is generating interest. The same interest is evident behind the scenes as national labs and universities become more deeply engaged in research aimed at improving the technology.

These projects don’t yet impact the day-to-day life of an energy or facility manager or the building owner. After all, even promising research done in a university lab halfway around the world will not immediately reduce the cost of energy.

But it eventually will. For this reason it is important to keep abreast of the industry. Putting solar panels on the roof of a building is a long-term commitment. While the company doing the work doesn’t know how the science and technology will evolve, it can provide insight on how difficult it will be to change various elements of the system as the approaches being researched today are commercialized and enter the market.

The bottom line is that it is clear that the solar energy sector will evolve quickly. The rapidity of research will grow as the integration of the photo voltaic and storage industries – driven (no pun intended) by Elon Musk – spurs deeper innovation.

There is a lot of intriguing research ongoing. Some examples:

Researchers at The Australian National University say that they have converted 97 percent of captured sunlight into steam. The system uses reflectors to concentrate light. This generates steam capable of driving turbines, says a story that posted late last week at the school’s website.

Two of the major obstacles in generating solar energy is that the spectrum of light that can be converted to electricity is narrow and that solar cells are inefficient. This concept seems to bypass those challenges by not actually converting the light to electricity. Rather, it just uses applies the energy to water and use the resulting steam:

The sunlight is focused onto the pipes, heating the water as it enters at the brim and spirals up into the cavity. The water reaches peak temperature in the deepest reaches of the cavity, which minimises heat loss. Heat which does leak out of the cavity can be absorbed by the cooler water around the hat’s brim

Researchers are Purdue University are combining three technologies to use more of the light spectrum in generating power. The approach, according to the Purdue University website, uses photovoltaic cells to convert visible and ultraviolet light into electricity and thermoelectric devices to convert heat to electricity. The third technology — steam turbines – seems to be used in much the same way as in the approach being pursued by The Australian National University.

Better solar cells may be coming courtesy of Vladimir Fridkin, one of the developers of the photocopier. Phys.org says that the team with which he works is comprised of researchers from the Drexel University, the Shubnikov Institute of Crystallography of the Russian Academy of Sciences, the University of Pennsylvania and the U. S. Naval Research Laboratory. The research focuses on improving the conversion of light into electrical power by focusing on electrons that have more energy to contribute.

The University of Oregon’s Daily Emerald reports on research being conducted under a grant from The U.S. Department of Energy’s (DoE) SunShot initiative. The story says that the goal is to develop a new way of making crystals in solar cells. Currently, the story says, gaseous metals are used as precursors. The idea is instead to use solids, which potentially can boost efficiency by 50 percent and is far safer, the story said.

At George Washington University, researchers working under a $900,000 grant from the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) are expanding on commercialized work from startup Semprius.

Semprius’ approach is to use lenses to stream sunlight onto micro-scale solar cells. This, the story at GW Today says, can concentrate the incoming light by a factor of more than 1,000. A team led by research scientist Matthew Lumb is working to find ways to employ the technology in scenarios is which direct light is not available.

Researchers at the Paul Scherrer Institute PSI and the ETH Zurich are working on an approach that combines solar energy and carbon dioxide to create synthetic fuel. The process involves heating a reactive substance to 1,500 degrees centigrade.

The great heat results in chemical reactions that create a synthetic fuel that powers turbines. As in some of the other approaches, the inefficient steps of creating electricity and its costly storage are avoided.

Clearly, not all of these techniques find their way into products. The point, however, is that they all were discussed in articles appearing in a short period of roughly two weeks. Clearly, a lot is happening. Eventually, some of this research will be commercialized. At that point, energy managers and building owners will have to make decisions. The best advice is to keep abreast, at least at a high level, on developments today.

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