Picture this: You want to use your phone. You don’t have a charging cable or a mobile charger, and you don’t need one. The sun takes care of everything for you, gathering solar energy for your battery while you use your phone throughout the day.
You want to take a weekend trip in your electric car, and you don’t spare a second thought to charging stations along the way. The sun handles everything, collecting energy from those rays of sunlight beating down on your windshield, your car top, and your rear window.
At work, you plug your laptop into a wall outlet. Everything feels the same, but it’s completely different because you’re quietly aware of one crucial difference: your wall outlet isn’t being fed electricity from the power grid. It’s being fed by the sun.
While the concept of solar cities might seem like a sci-fi dream, recent technology from Michigan State University says otherwise. And the example above says “electric car” instead of “hovercar” because this tech isn’t part of some far-off decade; it’s happening now, and MSU’s tech is a huge part of making solar cities a tangible part of our near future.
Transparent Solar Panels To Power Solar Cities
The benefits of solar energy are exponential. Solar “reduces the threat to cities posed by global warming, cuts down on toxic air pollution, fortifies cities against severe weather events and boosts local economies,” according to a report by Environment America, a Boston-based research and policy center.
And solar-powered cities are already in development; Sonnenschiff, a community in Germany, was built in 2004 to sustain its own energy needs using a series of rooftop solar arrays. Inhabitat reports that Sonnenschiff produces four times the energy it consumes, and pictures show a series of sloping roofs coated with black solar panels that face the sun.
Those black solar panels are our current method of harnessing large-scale solar energy, but Richard Lunt — a materials scientist and professor at Michigan State University — has a different method in mind. Lunt is the cofounder of Ubiquitous Energy, a Silicon Valley technology company developing photovoltaics using transparent solar technology.
In layman’s terms, Lunt’s research is being used to create solar panels that generate energy — without us even knowing they’re there.
How It Works
The term “photovoltaics” refers to a method of converting solar energy into electricity using materials that generate a voltage when they’re exposed to light. It’s a chemical reaction, and current solar panels are able to convert between 15 to 19 percent of the sun’s energy into electricity. But if solar panels are spread out over a larger surface area — namely, the windows that cover tall buildings and skyscrapers — then their energy output would be exponential.
Totally transparent solar cells could turn our windows into solar panels http://t.co/bjmFKUuaKa— Fast Company (@FastCompany) September 13, 2014
In an article from MSU Today, Lunt said, “When you look at tall buildings, there is a tremendous amount of surface area. They can act as efficient collectors throughout the day.” However, nobody wants their windows to be covered with black solar panels. To best utilize that vertical space without obscuring the view, Lunt’s technology converts solar energy into electricity by allowing visible light to pass through a transparent solar concentrator. Then, the light we can’t see — ultraviolet and infrared waves — is collected and converted by photovoltaic solar cells into electricity.
The best part? The solar panels developed by Lunt’s team look just like glass. So, the windows of the near future can use this technology to power homes, office buildings, and even cities — all without blocking natural light.
The Applications Are Endless
The solar cell being developed by Ubiquitous Energy can generate electricity on any surface without any aesthetic impact, and Lunt’s team is working on a flexible, transparent sheet that can retrofit the windows of existing buildings to generate solar power. The best part is that this technology is relatively low-cost, which translates into the potential for cities in the near future to more easily operate on solar power.
The benefits of the continued developments at Ubiquitous Energy are tremendous. Not only would their tech work with the layout of existing cities, but also a quicker adoption of large-scale solar energy allows cities to mitigate the impacts of global warming. Environment America reports that solar power produces 96 percent less global warming pollution than coal-fired power plants, and going solar can also reduce air pollution by limiting our reliance on fossil fuels.
There are smaller, yet equally exciting, applications for transparent solar panels. Consider the ramifications of a transparent, solar-powered sheet built into your phone, smartwatch, laptop, or tablet — you’d never have to charge it again. Even Ubiquitous Energy states that their solar panels in mobile technology can extend battery life “up to infinite.”
Electric cars would never have to be charged; they could run indefinitely, reducing our reliance on natural gas. And in situations in which the city’s electric grid was disrupted, the electricity from solar panels would prevent blackouts, allowing our cities to continue operating smoothly.
And, true to Lunt’s vision, we wouldn’t even know the solar panels were there. They’d blend into our surroundings, allowing us to live our lives and save the planet — while the sun does all the work for us.