Skyscraper Sunset

The concept of transparent solar cells that would transform glass-clad skyscrapers into solar farms and turn smartphone screens into solar panels is exciting, but not new.

In 2014, a Michigan State University research team created a fully transparent solar panel. Until now, solar cells of this kind have been only partially transparent and usually tinted, but these new ones are so clear that they’re practically indistinguishable from a normal pane of glass.

If you look closely, you can see a couple of black strips along the edges of plastic block. Otherwise, though, the active organic material — and thus the bulk of the solar panel — is highly transparent.

Person Holding Glass

It allows visible light to pass straight through, and uses organic molecules to guide ultraviolet and infrared wavelengths to the edges of the glass, where tiny photovoltaic cells turned the non-visible light into electricity. Conversion efficiency of these transparent solar panels, at 10%, is a little less than traditional solar panels which reach 20 to 25%.

Other versions of previous semi-transparent solar cells that cast light in colored shadows can usually achieve efficiency of around seven percent. Conversion efficiency of Ubiquitous Energy Transparent Solar Cells are at 10%, is a little less than traditional solar panels which reach 20 to 25%.

While numbers like seven and ten percent efficiency seem low, houses featuring fully solar windows or buildings created from the organic material could compound that electricity and bring it to a more useful level.

Researchers on the Michigan State team believe their TLSC technology could span from industrial applications to more manageable uses like consumer devices and handheld gadgets. Their main priorities in continuing to develop the technology appear to be power efficiency and maintaining a scalable level of affordability, so that solar power can continue to grow as a major player in the field of renewable energy.

“It opens a lot of area to deploy solar energy in a non-intrusive way. It can be used on tall buildings with lots of windows or any kind of mobile device that demands high aesthetic quality like a phone or e-reader. Ultimately we want to make solar harvesting surfaces that you do not even know are there.”

-Lunt in an interview with Michigan State’s Today blog

This breakthrough that could lead to a world where windows, panes of glass, and even entire buildings could be used to generate solar energy. And we think it’s just the beginning. There have been whispers of solar windows that can generate 50 times more power than today’s traditional solar panels. So keep an ear out for news of more cool advances in solar tech in the coming years!

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