While solar-thermal flat panels are proficient at delivering hot showers, their ability to keep the lights on has been a little dim.

Currently, solar-thermal flat panels absorb sunlight to heat water and generate thermal energy, but they don't produce much electricity.

However, researchers from Boston College and MIT recently reported that, by introducing two innovations, they were able to increase the efficiency of solar-thermal flat panels by seven to eight times, as well as generate a sizable amount of electricity.

First, the team created a better light-absorbing surface made from a nanostructured material. Second, they placed the material within an energy-trapping, vacuum-sealed flat panel.

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By combining the two innovations, the scientists were able to enhance the flat panel's electricity-generating capacity, said Boston College Professor of Physics Zhifeng Ren, co-author of a report published in the journal Nature Materials.

"We have developed a flat panel that is a hybrid capable of generating hot water and electricity in the same system," said Ren. "The ability to generate electricity by improving existing technology at minimal cost makes this type of power generation self-sustaining from a cost standpoint."

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These new advances potentially promise more cost-effective solutions for converting solar energy into electricity. According to Ren, this should greatly impact the rapidly expanding residential and industrial clean energy markets.

"Existing solar-thermal technologies do a good job generating hot water. For the new product, this will produce both hot water and electricity," said Ren. "Because of the new ability to generate valuable electricity, the system promises to give users a quicker payback on their investment. This new technology can shorten the payback time by one third."

Illustration: Courtesy Ed Hayward/Boston College