Engineers at the University of Exeter in England have shown that a solar panel the size of a classroom textbook could power an entire home.
Today’s solar panels typically have an efficiency of 20 percent at best, wasting 80 percent of their potential, based on size.
The Exeter team used an electric field to “funnel” the electrons created by sunlight to a specific spot on the panel, concentrating the charge at that point, boosting output efficiency to around 60%.
With this design, one solar panel that continuously concentrates the electrons it’s harvesting could, in theory, outperform a rooftop full of conventional panels.
There’s much engineering yet to do. For example, the demonstration panel uses hafnium, a metal that isn’t rare but also isn’t easy to come by. The developers are looking for cheaper and more plentiful materials, while also working on the challenges of engineering, and scaling up their discovery to practical use.
Solar’s fine in sunny climes, but what about places like Seattle or Scandinavia, where skies are overcast, or the sun is dim for long periods?
Engineers at the University of British Columbia, another cloudy place, have found a practical way to use bacteria to transform sunshine into power.
The team started with a strain of normally dangerous E. coli that, like most bacteria, has a natural dye that captures sunlight to make energy via photosynthesis. They genetically altered the bugs to make large amounts of lycopene, a compound that is especially good at collecting light. The scientists then doused the engineered bacteria with a mineral that conducts electricity and painted the mixture over a glass plate.
Ongoing refinement could make bio-based solar cells as efficient and inexpensive as their inorganic counterparts, the engineers believe.
The price of conventional solar panels will continue to plummet. In most climates, solar now rivals or beats the cost of grid-scale electricity. New generation and storage technologies will continue to evolve, looking to make solar electricity the power source of choice in common applications before 2030.