New Tech to Revolutionize Solar Power

Brian Hicks

Written By Brian Hicks

Posted March 31, 2014

Solar power gets a lot of hype around here and for good reason. The amount of electricity generated from solar energy increases exponentially every year, and as technology continues to improve, so too will its usefulness.
We’re going to see a ridiculous spike in solar projects; it’s already taking off, but last week, a major breakthrough took place to bring that inevitability even closer.Rainbow Light Absorb

There is a new light-absorbing technology that could revolutionize the industry. In simplest terms: it slows down and absorbs certain wavelengths of light, opening the door to new and exciting ways to use solar power. It’s already getting attention from the military where it could improve radar and stealth technology, and it has the ability to transform thermal energy recycling, which is huge as the world becomes more connected. Bringing it home, our photovoltaic cells used in solar paneling would also run much more efficiently.

It’s all happening at the University of Buffalo and was reported last Friday in the Scientific Reports journal, where it goes in depth to explore the use of a nanoscale microchip component called a “multilayered waveguide taper array” that dramatically improves the chip’s ability to trap and absorb light.

Picture a rainbow for a moment. Using this new chip, each frequency of light that is captured by its thimble-like structures is slowed and ultimately absorbed at different vertical wavelengths, or broadbands of light. The chip has waveguide tapers that together form an array, much like that of a rainbow.

The interesting part is that it could prove invaluable for thin-film solar technology used in photovoltaics and the recycling of waste thermal energy, a byproduct of industry and our everyday electronic devices.

Fields to Advance

In its structural process, each waveguide taper is made of ultra-thin layers of metal, semiconductors, and/or insulators. This is where the light is absorbed. If the thickness of these tapers is adjusted, the tapers can be tuned to different frequencies that would include visible light, near-infrared, mid-infrared, terahertz, and microwaves.

That’s where many different applications can begin to take place.

Ever heard of on-chip optical communication? It’s a new field of advanced computing research that uses light for super short-range communications; like tiny fiber optics. Unfortunately, it faces a major problem called crosstalk.

This is the state in which an optical signal transmitted on one waveguide channel creates a scrambled effect on another waveguide channel. Using the multilayered waveguide structure instead, this could all be avoided.
Back in 2010, IBM Research said this form of communication can share information at more than 40 gigabits per second.

For photovoltaic cells, there is intrigue because this new technology is less expensive and more flexible than traditional solar cells. Because the multilayered waveguide taper structure array can absorb both visible and infrared spectrum light, it could also increase the amount of energy that a solar cell can generate.

Think about all the wasted thermal energy out there today. We’ve got heat rolling off power plants and other factories, and then there are things like our televisions, computers and smartphones. All of this could one day be alleviated by this new technology.

As for our military, changing the scale of the tapers and working with low frequency and microwaves, stealth tactics and cloaking could change the game of warfare and surveillance. Applying this technology to materials used on various vehicles could make them virtually undetectable.

Current Solar

We all know that solar energy is a good thing. Development started way back in the 1860s when we thought we were going to run out of coal. But when that never happened, solar slid into obscurity and industry was dominated by coal consumption. And that’s where we stood for more than a century. It wasn’t until the 1980s that solar began to revitalize and we started seeing those funny looking things on rooftops. Heck, even President Jimmy Carter had solar panels installed on the White House.

Slowly but surely, solar power caught on, and the technology today is far superior to what was in place 30 plus years ago; maybe that’s why President Reagan got rid of his panels, but even so, the current state of solar power has its limits.

If we look at the military, almost all of their efforts will focus on microwave electromagnetic (EM) applications, improving radar, concealment, and other systems. The limitation here is that they are cumbersome. Even with heavy research it has proven hard to get around that factor. This new technology could change all that in the blink of an eye.

Broadband absorption is another puzzling interest to researchers today. Modern technology can’t get the amount of absorption that is desired; a problem the new “rainbow” storage of light is able to solve. This gives developers a promising platform for an efficient on-chip broadband absorber that could bring great benefit to our future.

The Takeaway

It’s hard to say when we’ll actually see this breakthrough be applied to our current systems, but without question it has swung the door wide open on some of the biggest problems that face the solar industry, mainly being the limits on photovoltaics and thermal absorption.

The fact that we can now change the thickness and size of each layer of the waveguide tapers means that engineering and absorption properties can mimic other materials and quite frankly, the sky’s the limit, unlike before.

This should lead to the development of more controllable and effective platforms that will let us manipulate solar-structures that otherwise would never exist.

If we thought solar was hot before, just wait for it.

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