Durham University in the UK launches £6.3 million solar research project

Durham University has announced the largest photovoltaic research project ever to take place in the UK.  Durham scientists will lead researchers from eight UK institutions nine industry partners to explore the benefits of solar energy.  The project commences in April and  £6.3 million will be invested to explore ways to reduce the thickness and cost of solar cells. 

“Our medium to long-term goal is to make a major contribution to achieving competitive photovoltaic solar energy, which we hope will lead to an uptake in the use of solar power,” said principal investigator Professor Ken Durose from Durham’s physics department.

From the University Physics Department:

At present solar cells – used to convert light energy into electricity – are made from key components such as the rare and expensive metal indium which costs approximately £320 ($660) per kilogram.

To cut costs in solar cell production the research team will work to reduce the thickness of the cells.

Making a solar semiconductor thinner by one millionth of a metre in solar cells generating one gigawatt of power could save 50 tonnes of material.

Hawaiian Solar Energy Project

I spent today hanging out on the outside deck at a coffee shop talking to one of my more bohemian friends.  He’s a guy who just doesn’t live in the same world as the rest of us.  He doesn’t believe in money; preferring to trade labor for whatever he needs and pretty much travels around the country sleeping in hostels and on strangers couches.  He just got back from Hawaii, where a great deal of his time apparently was spent walking around picking up cigarette butts and trash off of the beaches and streets just because it needed doing.  We talked about Polynesian culture and the high cost of living in paradise (I spent some time there back in the ’80s), and then I went home to find this article about Hawaii’s proposed solar energy plan. 

The project would involve adding up to 3.4 million square feet of solar panels on roofs and parking lots.  It would span 6 islands and generate a possible 34 megawatts of power.  They are still receiving bids but the widely distributed solar farm could be up and running within a couple of years.

The plan calls for a private business to fund the equipment and installation, then sell the power back under a 20 year contract.  After the 20 year period is up the state will have the option to purchase the equipment or negotiate a new contract for power purchase. 

Nanoantennas, a new, more efficient method for solar power?

nanoantenna.jpgIdaho National Laboratory, Microcontinuum inc, and the University of Missouri have developed a new solar technology which can be imprinted directly on a flexible material. 

The process uses a special process to stamp microscopic square spirals called “nanoantennas” into the material each 1/25th the diameter of a human hair.  The nanoantennas are capable of collecting energy in the infrared spectrum so that even after the sun goes down they are still collecting power from heat being given off by the earth.

Commercial solar panels usually transform less that 20 percent of the usable energy that strikes them into electricity. Each cell is made of silicon and doped with exotic elements to boost its efficiency. “The supply of processed silicon is lagging, and they only get more expensive,” Novack says. He hopes solar nanoantennas will be a more efficient and sustainable alternative.

The team estimates individual nanoantennas can absorb close to 80 percent of the available energy. The circuits themselves can be made of a number of different conducting metals, and the nanoantennas can be printed on thin, flexible materials like polyethylene, a plastic that’s commonly used in bags and plastic wrap. In fact, the team first printed antennas on plastic bags used to deliver the Wall Street Journal, because they had just the right thickness.

By focusing on readily available materials and rapid manufacturing from inception, Novack says, the aim is to make nanoantenna arrays as cheap as inexpensive carpet

Unfortunately there are still a few setbacks.  The electricity generated by the nanoantenna is a very high frequency alternating current.  Alternating current is a type of electricity where the voltage alternates between a positive voltage and a negative one.  Ordinary house current does this around 60 times a second.  Unfortunately we are talking about a electricity that switches polarity ten thousand billion times a second, which we don’t really have a way of using at this point in time. 

The plan is to try and turn the alternating current into direct current so that it can be stored in a batteries and then later converted to a more usable alternating current as needed.  Many options are being explored on how to address this issue; the most probable being high speed rectifier diodes that would sit at the center of each antenna and convert the alternating current into direct current.  Diodes are semi-conductor components that block current flowing in one direction and allow it in the opposite direction.  By using these diodes the positive cycle of the current can be channeled to the positive side of the battery and the negative to the negative.  The result is a close enough approximation of direct current to be stored in a battery for later use. 

It will interesting to see how this develops over the next few years.  Solar collectors this cheap could result in nearly every building having a solar roof. 

NanoPower windows convert sunlight into electricity

When I think of power windows I get a feeling of dread; like some just stepped on my grave.  This is because I own a vintage European car and while the drive train and suspension are second to none, the electrical system is often…well…European. 

Over-engineered (read overly expensive) little rocker switches control the windows from the center console instead of the door.  My personal record is three out of four windows work (more or less) like they should albeit with a surprising array of interesting sounds. 

But this concept in power windows, while being only slightly more complicated, is quite a bit more interesting and beneficial to mankind in general.  We are talking nanosilicon photovoltaic cells.  Using a process of electrochemical and ultrasound identically sized nanoparticles of silicon are  produced that provide “varying wavelengths of photoluminescence and high quantum efficiency” 

I haven’t a clue what that means. 

But the short of it is that they create a clear film that can be placed over existing windows and convert sunlight into electricity.  In addition, this same film can be placed over existing solar panels increasing the performance of the solar panel 60 to 70 percent.

“The exceptional power performance of these silicon nanoparticles is a substantial achievement, and is especially significant since our use of these same nanoparticles is key to the development of Octillion’s transparent glass windows capable of generating electricity, an innovation that I believe can potentially reduce the harmful environmental impact associated with traditional electrical power generation,” explained Mr. Harmel S. Rayat, President and CEO of Octillion Corp

In addition to increasing the performance of the solar panels the film should increase the the lifespan by reducing UV heat. 

The NonoPower Windows are a project of Octillion corp.

Nations Largest Solar Plant Goes Online at Nellis AFB

nellis.jpg

We certainly live in exciting times for solar energy; Just days ago the nation’s most powerful solar plant went online in Colorado and now the U.S. Air Force has one upped it. The new solar array at Nellis AFB will put out enough power to supply 25 percent of the power used by the 12,000 people on base.

“Nellis, the ‘Home of the Fighter Pilot,’ is now home to the largest solar electric plant in all of North America,” said Col. Michael Bartley, 99th Air Base Wing commander. “Our base and indeed our entire nation will benefit from the predictable, secure supply of clean energy that this landmark power plant is now generating.”

The Air Force is the largest consumer of electricity in the US Government so this is definitely a step in the right direction. In addition, the 140 acres of land the solar array was installed on is a capped landfill; so the possible uses for this real estate are pretty limited to begin with.

The solar field itself consists of more than 72,000 photovoltaic panels that track the sun; constructed from nearly 6,000,000 cells. It generates 14 megawatts of clean energy thereby reducing the CO2 emissions by 24,000 tons per year. That’s the equivalent of pulling 185,000 cars off the road.

Nevada Governor Jim Gibbons noted that clean energy projects like this have the potential to reduce United States dependence on foreign and nonrenewable energy sources.

“Nellis is now generating 14 megawatts of clean, renewable energy–energy that meets the demands and the needs of Nellis AFB,” Governor Gibbons continued. “More importantly, its meeting the future. It’s demonstrating that we can use the abundant renewable resource of solar energy in the United States.”

I spent a few years working for a major defense contractor whose factory co-existed with the Joint Reserve Base in Fort Worth. Our main plant building was over a mile long and as I drove into work each day I always wondered at how much energy we would be able to save if we covered that enormous span of roof baking in the hot Texas sun with Solar Panels. I know at the time it was not financially beneficial to do so but that place used an amazing amount of electricity. Now with new technology driving the price down where solar is competitive with the price of coal power we may be seeing large installations like this more and more.