The year 2011 was record-breaking for the number of solar power projects completed. In fact, solar power captured 49% of the global renewable energy investment totals, according to a report by GlobalData. The solar industry has tremendous growth opportunity, in spite of the steep tariffs recently placed on China, which had been supplying solar panels at remarkably low prices.
There have been five recent scientific solar power breakthroughs which could all contribute to lower costs for solar energy, as follows:
1. Associate Professor Jeffrey Grossman along with others at MIT have created azobenzene, a new molecule, using carbon nanotubes to change the structure of the molecules so that stored solar thermal energy is indefinitely locked in. These remarkable new molecules can convert solar energy and store it at an energy density which can be compared to lithium ion batteries. This breakthrough is significant since it converts energy, stores energy, doesn’t degrade and is robust and inexpensive.
2. Professor Karen Gleason, as the leader of an MIT team, discovered a method by which to print a solar cell on virtually anything. Part of the trick is it to use low temperatures and vapor instead of liquid solutions which are costly, require high temperatures, and degrade the substrate materials. The printed paper cell is amazingly durable, able to be folded and unfolded 1,000+ times and with no loss of performance capability.
3. The production of revolutionary micro solar thermal power has been the pursuit of Professor Gang Chen. Theoretically, this invention would produce electricity eight times more efficiently than the world’s best solar panel. Chen’s system is a departure from the usual array of mirrors which heat up an element in order to run a steam turbine. Instead, nanostructured thermoelectric generators capture the heat differential which is created by the sun. The panels can heat up using ambient light even on days that are overcast, and the panels can be made with materials that are very inexpensive.
4. Graduate students from MIT recently made a breakthrough discovery, as well. They engineered a virus called M13 which typically attacks bacteria but does the precise work of spacing carbon nanotubes apart so that they can be useful in effectively converting solar energy. It is as if the virus were a minuscule machining tool properly patterning the nanotubes and creating an increase in efficiency from 8% to 10.6%, representing nearly a one-third increase.
5. Vladimir Bulovic, an electrical engineering professor, has made an important breakthrough related to transparent solar cells which can be used in windows. Previous attempts at this type of technology have produced dismal efficiencies at less than 1% because they have tended to block too much light, which renders the windows useless. Bulovic’s breakthrough does away with two-thirds of the cost of installing thin-film technology. He incorporates a layer of new organic transparent PV cells in the window glazing. An MIT team thinks that this astounding breakthrough can reach 12% efficiency at a cost that represents an enormous price break over the cost of thin film solar cells.
It could be that new technology will unlock a whole new energy revolution. Some experts believe that producing solar energy will soon be as inexpensive as producing energy with coal.
Many of these advanced technologies may only have implications for mega-projects put forth by utility companies and large investors, but homeowners and small business owners can easily benefit from solar power too. Recently, roof-top solar energy systems have become more affordable, helping everyday people end their dependence on utility generated power and take advantage of long-term savings.