Space & Innovation

Can Nanotechnology Turn Windows Into Solar Panels?

Solar energy technology is becoming more efficient and more effective while also becoming invisible to the naked eye - here's how.

With a few significant exceptions, everybody loves solar power. It's clean, it's getting cheaper every year, and it has the distinct advantage of drawing power from an energy source that will last another 5 billion years or so.

But as Trace Dominguez explains in today's DNews dispatch, solar power actually isn't particularly efficient, in terms of the core technology. After all, photovoltaics -- the standard tech underlying most solar power systems -- has been around for about 150 years.

The good news is that several recent developments in nanotechnology are pointing to a brighter future, quite literally. A new breed of advanced solar panels is emerging that uses tiny components called nanowires, or quantum wires, to greatly improve efficiency of photovoltaics. These wires are tiny indeed -- you'd need to bundle 10,000 of them together to equal the width of a human hair. The wires essentially condense and concentrate sunlight, providing up to a 15-fold increase in the efficiency of solar cells.

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Nanowires can be used to harvest heat, too. Traditional photovoltaic solar cells don't do anything with the heat the sun gives off. But add certain nanowires, and the panel is now made of thermophotovoltaic cells, a phrase which is rather poetic, really, and worth 40 Scrabble points. In fact, a team of U.S. and Australian researchers recently unveiled a new nanowire material that gathers both heat and light -- doubling the efficiency of standard solar cells -- and also glows in the dark. Bonus style points!

Meanwhile, another group of scientists has published details on a quantum dot technology that can be built into standard glass windows. Only 50 atoms across, the quantum dots absorb light passing through the glass and redirect it as heat to tiny collectors also built into the window.

These nascent technologies will need additional research and funding before they're ready for prime-time industrial or residential use. But if all goes well, it's a pretty sunny forecast for solar energy.

-- Glenn McDonald

Read More: Quantum Dot Solar Windows Go Non-Toxic, Colorless, With Record Efficiency

UC Berkeley: Nanowire-based Solar Cells

Science Daily: Glowing Nanomaterial To Drive New Generation Of Solar Cells