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Glass, the solar energy industry and the latest trends

Thursday, July 26th 2012 5:00 PM
By GetSolar Staff.
Glass, the solar energy industry and the latest trends Glass already plays a role in solar power, as it is the material most often used to create a protective shell for photovoltaic and solar hot water panels. However, research from universities in California and Massachusetts, among other locations, may be changing how glass gets used in the solar PV process.

Turning windows into solar panels
Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles have developed a new transparent solar cell that would work in place of household windows.

The panels use two transparent conductors instead of darker colored metals, meaning they would work as a replacement for the glass windows typically found in buildings. Another key feature is that these windowpane replacements capture infrared radiation as opposed to visible light, according to a release.

The panels, known as polymer solar cells, let in about 70 percent of available light. This makes them look in appearance like tinted windows, according to Time Magazine.

"Our new PSCs are made from plastic-like materials and are lightweight and flexible," Yang Yang, the study's leader and a UCLA professor of materials science and engineering, said. "More importantly, they can be produced in high volume at low cost."

The main issue with this glass window replacement is that it is relatively inefficient at turning sunlight into electricity, converting about 4 percent of what passes through into power, according to Time.

The UCLA research team are not the first ones to think of such a concept, as the 3M company last October announced a product that turned glass into solar panels. The 3M idea used adhesive strips that went on a window to capture sunlight for energy. The adhesive strips are only about 20 percent as efficient as traditional photovoltaic arrays at capturing sunlight. Plus, the strips block 80 percent of visible light and 90 percent of all infrared waves, according to IDG News.

“The 3M solar cell has a light-green color, whereas ours is nearly fully transparent,” Yang said to Time.

Glass magnifies the sun's rays
Beyond windows, glass has also found itself involved with solar power as a means of magnifying the sun's rays. So-called mirror augmented photovoltaic systems seek to use glass mirrors to concentrate more solar power onto a photovoltaic cell.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have found a way to cheaply concentrate available light using glass. Scientists there developed a system that uses a number of differently colored glass panels that go on top of an existing installation. The panels absorb some of the visible light, leaving just infrared radiation to go through onto the PV cell, according to Wired.

Since the glass panels also concentrate light at their edges, they can increase the efficiency of an existing PV installation "by a factor of over 40," Marc Baldo, the study's leader and an MIT associate professor of electrical engineering, said.

Additionally, mirror-based installations can also work as a solar water heating system. In this type of installation, mirrors concentrate available sunlight onto a nearby water source. This heats up the water, which then powers a turbine. According to the Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory, these types of solar water heating installations using mirrors to concentrate sunlight can generate anywhere from 25 kilowatts to 80 megawatts of power.

Thermata, a Pasadena, California-based startup company, takes the idea even further by using mirrors that track the sun through the sky thanks to cameras. This way, the mirror is always in the perfect position to reflect the most amount of sunlight, according to CNET.

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