Solar cell turns windows into generators

mark-bissett1-jan-2012-3Imagine a world where the windows of high-rise office buildings are powerful energy producers, offering its inhabitants much more than some fresh air, light and a view.

For the past four years a team of researchers from Flinders University has been working to make this dream a reality – and now the notion of solar-powered windows could be coming to a not too distant future near you.

As part of his just-completed PhD, Dr Mark Bissett (pictured) from the School of Chemical and Physical Sciences has developed a revolutionary solar cell using carbon nanotubes.

A promising alternative to traditional silicon-based solar cells, carbon nanotubes are cheaper to make and more efficient to use than their energy-sapping, silicon counterparts.

“Solar power is actually the most expensive type of renewable energy – in fact the silicon solar cells we see on peoples’ roofs are very expensive to produce and they also use a lot of electricity to purify,” Dr Bissett said.

“The overall efficiency of silicon solar cells are about 10 per cent and even when they’re operating at optimal efficiency it could take eight to 15 years to make back the energy that it took to produce them in the first place because they’re produced using fossil fuels,” he said.

Dr Bissett said the new, low-cost carbon nanotubes are transparent, meaning they can be “sprayed” onto windows without blocking light, and they are also flexible so they can be weaved into a range of materials including fabric – a concept that is already being explored by advertising companies.

While the amount of power generated by solar windows would not be enough to completely offset the energy consumption of a standard office building, Dr Bissett said they still had many financial and environmental advantages.

“In a new building, or one where the windows are being replaced anyway, adding transparent solar cells to the glass would be a relatively small cost since the cost of the glass, frames and installation would be the same with or without the solar component,” Dr Bissett said.

“It’s basically like tinting the windows except they’re able to produce electricity, and considering office buildings don’t have a lot of roof space for solar panels it makes sense to utilise the many windows they do have instead.”

Dr Bissett said the technology mimics photosynthesis, the process whereby plants obtain energy from the sun.

“A solar cell is created by taking two sheets of electrically conductive glass and sandwiching a layer of functionalised single-walled carbon nanotubes between the glass sheets,” he said.

“When light shines on the cell, electrons are generated within the carbon nanotubes and these can be used to power electrical devices.”

Although small prototypes have been developed in the lab, he said the next step would be to test the carbon cells on an “industrial stage”.

If all goes to plan, the material could be on the market within 10 years.

“When we first started the research we had no idea if it would work because we were the first in the world to try it so it’s pretty exciting that we’ve proved the concept, and hopefully it will be commercially available in a few year’s time,” Dr Bissett said.

Dr Bissett is a winner of Flinders inaugural Best Student Paper Award, a now annual program which aims to recognise excellence in student research across the University.

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7 thoughts on “Solar cell turns windows into generators

  1. This sounds very interesting and I have to say I don’t understand all the technical aspects on how this energy gets transfered to operate electric devices. However, we manufacture skylights with electric motors and electric blinds and if you would like to test this concept in a skylight or two I would wecome the opportunity to learn more about this product.

    Bruce

  2. This technology is what the world has been waiting for. This will revolutionize many industries
    with it`s ability to produce energy. I see several changes to many industries that will better the way we use energy for propulsion. The question is what will the percentage of energy produced per cell fabricated. The cost per cell will also determine just how fast this goes to market. This new technology is probably the best I have seen in the past 25 years.

  3. I fully agree with Mr.Mosher – this is really fantastic news.
    We are also producers of skylights with botn electric and pneumatic openers, and if you have an idea to try it also with multiwall or single wall polycarbonate systems we will be happy to help you.
    It will be exciting if this technology comes soon in the real industrial applications.

    Wish you great success!

    Marco

  4. I see you stab at the efficiency of solar panels, but you don’t go on to explain the efficiency of the carbon nanotubes…It must not be that great

  5. Making fabric with solar cells would probably make clothing that could cool off the wearer. This would be really great for someone who has to wear a burka etc. There would be a market in the middle east where there is money and too much sunlight.

  6. I have been working with solar and other negative energy systems for some time, my objective more cost effective with a wider window of solar energy deliverance. With this concept that you have developed and with the concept that i have worked on we may have an opportunity to combine and achieve an more effective outcome. If you are interested, please e-mail me to conclude some impact outcomes.

  7. Are there homes, apartment complexes, or other mobile units which on a test, and volunteering basis have tested your theory that our product does and can work. This product sounds interesting to me. What about cost. If you need a test site I am willing to give it a try.

    Cynthia Dean

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