September 06, 2008
MIT Solar Concentrator 3 Years To Market?

Technology Review takes a look at the work of MIT researcher Marc Baldo whose team has developed a way to use glass sheets to concentrate light onto the edge of the glass. This can focusing light from a larger area onto a smaller (and therefore cheaper) amount of photovoltaics material.

Unlike the mirrors and lenses in conventional solar concentrators, Baldo's glass sheets act as waveguides, channeling light in the same way that fiber-optic cables transmit optical signals over long distances. The dyes coating the surfaces of the glass absorb sunlight; different dyes can be used to absorb different wavelengths of light. Then the dyes reŽmit the light into the glass, which channels it to the edges. Solar-cell strips attached to the edges absorb the light and generate electricity. The larger the surface of the glass compared with the thickness of the edges, the more the light is concentrated and, to a point, the less the power costs.

Baldo, an associate professor of electrical engineering, published his findings recently in Science. On their basis, he projects that his solar concentrators could be made big enough for the electricity they help generate to compete with electricity from fossil fuels. Indeed, says Baldo, panels equipped with the concentrators "could be the cheapest solar technology."

An earlier announcement about this research from July reports this technology might hit the market in as little as 3 years.

The researchers coated glass panels with layers of two or more light-capturing dyes. The dyes absorbed incoming light and then re-emitted the energy into the glass, which served as a conduit to channel the light to solar cells along the panels' edges. The dyes can vary from bright colors to chemicals that are mostly transparent to visible light.

Because the edges of the glass panels are so thin, far less semiconductor material is needed to collect the light energy and convert that energy into electricity.

"Solar cells generate at least ten times more power when attached to the concentrator," added Baldo.

Because the starting materials are affordable, relatively easy to scale up beyond a laboratory setting, and easy to retrofit to existing solar panels, the researchers believe the technology could find its way to the marketplace within three years.

A few of the researchers are starting a company to commercialize this technology.

Mapel, Currie and Goffri are starting a company, Covalent Solar, to develop and commercialize the new technology. Earlier this year Covalent Solar won two prizes in the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition. The company placed first in the Energy category ($20,000) and won the Audience Judging Award ($10,000), voted on by all who attended the awards.

A cheap way to turn light into electricity will not immediately solve our problem with dwindling oil reserves. But add in advances to cut the costs of lithium batteries for cars and the transition away from fossil fuels will become much easier.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2008 September 06 10:20 PM  Energy Solar

Person of Choler said at September 7, 2008 10:37 AM:

Solar power is the energy source of the future and always will be.

Ross said at September 7, 2008 11:14 AM:

Solar power is the energy source of the future and always will be.

Does that mean that it it will never be the energy source of the present? If you mean what you have written I suspect that you are wrong but we will likely know within 10 years.

texastickled said at September 7, 2008 2:51 PM:

"Solar power is the energy source of the future and always will be."

As long as they come up with a future generation of updated solar power. I've had solar panels. They are expensive and can't be relied on for very much actual power. Wind generators... YEAH! Solar.....Boo!

Plumb Bob said at September 7, 2008 5:55 PM:

Solar power has been the energy source of the future since the 1970s... and has yet to break through the cost/benefit barrier in all that time. It still requires a front-end investment that takes upwards of 20 years to pay its owner back, and cannot be used to generate marketable electricity without backup sources, which make it uneconomical.

If this innovation changes that picture, super. I wish them great success. However, I'm not holding my breath.

Fossil fuels are still, by far, the most efficient source of energy for a large-scale economy, and most likely will be for the next 50 years. I'd love it if technological innovation proved me wrong, but I don't see anything yet with the potential to do it.

mister z said at September 8, 2008 2:54 AM:

Global R&D investment in solar energy over the last 30 years is probably in the billions. R&D into fossil fuel based energy production and efficiency of usage over the same period is probably larger by a factor of 50 to 100.

Society-wide, industrial scale application of solar is probably 50 years behind nuclear, 75 years behind oil development and 100+ years behind coal. That's a lot of catching up to do, and over the last 30 years I would hazard that global R&D investment in fossil fuel technologies (from oil discovery/recovery building a better F1 engine) has been 100 times the size of solar energy R&D.

This makes me pretty optimistic that there's a lot of (relatively) low hanging fruit in solar, that a paltry extra couple of billion into R&D can change very quickly. We haven't yet seen a tenth of what solar's going to provide in terms of cost-effectiveness, especially when measured against a floor of $100+/barrel oil.

Wolf-Dog said at September 8, 2008 5:06 AM:

There is already a Silicon Valley company that claims that by 2009 it will commercialize its lens-based concentrated photovoltaic power farms, which will cost 7 cents a kwh.

Separately, there are photosynthesis based solar energy modules with 25 % efficiency, which will cost 200 times less than silicon bases photovoltaic modules. These are genetically engineered proteins. Baron Frankenstein will be jealous.

Larry said at September 8, 2008 6:00 AM:

It has often been the case that a new way of doing things requires innovation in multiple domains.

Consider the car. Its signature technology is the internal combustion engine, but cars wouldn't have taken over without:

rubber tires
cheap pavement
assembly line manufacturing

Solar has been held back by:

cost of silicon
inefficient conversion
inability to store power for nighttime and cloudy days
static pricing/billing models
difficulty in moving power from sunny places to cities

Each one of these problems is under fierce attack by multiple entities. As this innovation underscores, progress is happening quickly on all of them, save possibly the last. Fortunately, solar can expand dramatically even without solving it, if the other problems are gone.

I recently returned from a trip through Mongolia, which was just then celebrating its first-ever gold medals. Mongolia has about 1 million nomads, who forage with their herds across the country's Texas-sized open range. Large numbers of them watched their athletes on their satellite tvs, which they powered with a solar cell mounted outside their gers (yurts.) Solar's time is pretty much here, unless something even better, such as polywell fusion, aces it out.

Walt said at September 15, 2008 10:56 PM:

Wonder why Germany - with a much smaller solar energy potential than the US - has been able to generate over 30% of it's energy needs with solar (so much that they have decommissioned ALL of their nuclear facilities) with current solar panel technology, and its industrial base is equivalent to ours, and the US can't? The problem is the fossil fuels and nuke lobbyists - and the politicians they own - that are stimying efforts to deploy solar, solar thermal and wind technologies. Solar Thermal technology is a way of solving the solar energy storage problem. Also, most cities in the US get loads of sunlight every day - and the daytime is when energy use is highest. Putting translucent solar PV film over the windows of those huge office buildings would take care of a large chunk of their electrical needs, and using the millions of acres of available flat urban rooftops to deploy solar panels would eliminate the need to use ground space - and believe me, even in wintertime in Chicago those rooftops get a lot of sunshine (and solar panel current output increases the colder it gets). These solutions are "off the shelf" technology that can be deployed now - not in some future time. The people of the US have been convinced that renewables like wind and solar will ony be able to supply a small fraction of our energy needs, while in rality the opposite is true.

Randall Parker said at September 15, 2008 11:08 PM:

Walt, You are making up false facts.

Germany is building more coal electric power plants.

Germany has not yet decommissioned its nuclear plants. When it does it will substitute coal electric for some of that lost power.

No, Germany does not get 30% of its energy from solar.

Solar is very expensive in Germany due to its northern location. The Germans pay far more for electric power than Americans and that problem is going to get even worse for them.

Andrew Culpeck said at September 22, 2008 10:03 AM:

Walt is right to think about this tech. being applied to the windows of building where it would generate power thoughout the day. The technology is reducing the cost of solor eletric so all windows in a tower could be used to generate power, even though not very efficiently. I was looking at printable solor panels this would bring the price down even more, so that all windows in a tower block could generate electricaty.

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