5 Solar Innovations That Could Change the Future
The sun is the fastest growing energy source in the world. It is the most abundant energy source mankind can access, and scientists and engineers across the globe are constantly discovering new and better ways to take advantage of it. As proof, it’s estimated that 36% of the US renewable energy generation will come from solar by 2050.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 173,000 terawatts of solar energy strikes the earth continuously. That’s more than 10,000 times the world’s total daily energy usage.
Fun fact: NASA estimates that you’d have to explode 100 billion tons of dynamite every second of every day to match the energy produced by the sun. It’s no wonder then, why there are thousands of solar engineers all over the world that want even a small piece of that energy.
Here are some newly innovative solar products being worked on today:
#1 Solar Innovation: Solar Paint
Solar paint is a paint applied to a surface that will capture energy from the sun and convert it into electricity. Solar paint may look like your typical paint, but it has billions of pieces of light sensitive material suspended in it – material that would transform it into energy-capturing paint. Installing solar paint only requires a technician to come out after you paint, drastically reducing the largest cost of the solar panel installation process.
Solar paint is not being utilized yet because it’s only 3-8% efficient, which is not efficient enough to be commercially sustainable. “Efficient” is defined as the percent of the total power captured with the sun’s rays. To compare, a traditional solar panel operates at approximately 18% efficiency. So there are still some advances solar paint needs to make before it’s a viable solution for electricity generation. Some experts believe solar paint is likely to be commercialized within the next five years.
#2 Solar Innovation: Solar Windows
Like solar paint, scientists and researchers around the world are working to advance solar window innovation. In fact, a group of National Renewable Energy Laboratory scientists have created solar windows that transform windows from a transparent glass to a tinted state. When tinted, the windows convert sunlight into electricity.
Other engineering researchers at Michigan State are developing a “transparent luminescent solar concentrator” that generates solar energy. They claim that there are 5-7 billion square meters of glass surface in the United States, making this technology capable of potentially supplying 40 percent of energy demands in the U.S.
Solar windows will never be as efficient as conventional solar panels because the solar window must remain at least partly transparent. But solar windows CAN produce a fairly large network of small photovoltaic sources, and solar window designers believe that the costs the solar windows save on energy will repay the dollars spent on installation.
#3 Solar Innovation: Solar Cars
The total annual distance humans travel using fossil fuels is approximately 9.5 trillion kilometers – which is equivalent to one lightyear. That’s a lot of fossil fuels being burned, which has many engineers attempting to design a solar-powered car for consumer use.
The challenges to producing a fully solar car – which would have 0 emissions – include intermittent and low performance. Dutch startup Lightyear is designing Lightyear One, a solar-electric car with a target launch of 2019. It’s won a Climate Change Innovator Award and the company claims it can drive for months without charging.
But there remains some debate as to whether fully-powered solar cars are realistic for public use, but that isn’t stopping engineers around the world from attempting to build one. And this isn’t a new trend. In fact, for over 30 years, countries have been competing in the World Solar Challenge, a 1,864-mile race through the Australian outback. Competing solar cars typically reach speeds of 55-62 mph capitalizing on the sunshine of the Australian outback.
#4 Solar Innovation: Solar Roads
The future of solar transportation may not be the vehicles themselves. To some extent, multiple countries – including the United States – have launched a solar road initiative. The first solar road in America debuted in Sandpoint, Idaho in 2016. The engineers of that project believe that if the U.S. was to use solar panels to cover the 48,000 square miles of paved surfaces in the lower 48 states, that we’d produce 3 times more power than the nation uses.
Even busy roads can “see” the sky 70-90 percent of the time and advocates for solar roads argue that they would drastically cut down or eliminate greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere from fossil fuel energy production. AND, the solar panels used on solar roads could also be engineered to filter storm water, melt snow, replace above-ground power cables, and light up the road to give warnings to motorists. The solar road panels could also be used to build other surfaces such as driveways, walking pathways, and parking lots.
#5 Solar Innovation: Solar Water (aka Solar Desalination Process)
Water desalination – creating freshwater from seawater, which is otherwise unusable water – is essentially the process of boiling salt water and capturing and condensing the steam to remove the salt. An extremely large volume of heat is needed to boil the water, and about half of the operating expenses of a desalination facility goes directly towards its energy costs.
The solar desalination process utilizes nanoparticle-assisted solar vaporization in a membrane distillation geometry. This process can be scalable and, if successful, can provide sufficient clean water for families to use in a small footprint, and potentially for off-grid desalination at isolated locations.
In September 2016, the U.S. Department of Energy announced that they expected “to make $15 million available for 7 to 10 projects that explore early-stage technologies with the prospect of significantly reducing the cost of desalination through solar thermal energy.” This is good news for the engineers of this trailblazing product which shows so much innovative potential.
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