T

he sun has nurtured life on Earth for millennia, casting its radiant energy upon our world. It's an age-old relationship, yet today's solar technology is far from ancient. We now possess not only the ability to capture the energy of the sun but also to store it for later use, turning night into day anytime we need to. Let's embark on a journey through the history of photovoltaics, exploring its humble origins and the cutting-edge innovations shaping our reality.

Solar Beginnings: From the Cradle to the Cosmos

The Birth of Photovoltaics

In the 19th century, the world was first introduced to the concept of the photovoltaic effect, thanks to Alexandre-Edmond Becquerel. Although the initial commercial cell could only muster a meager 6% efficiency, the PV cells of today stand tall at over 20% in terms of performance. But what fueled this leap in the technology of solar energy?

Photovoltaics and Space

Look to the stars, and you'll find the answer. Solar power, instrumental in fueling space missions, has evolved through its applications in satellites and space stations. This celestial connection has led to pivotal breakthroughs on Earth, transforming the way we harness the potential of the sun.

Current Photovoltaic Technology Explanation

Currently, the world has installed over 1TW of solar capacity. From urban rooftops to remote cottages and desert power plants, PV panels are becoming a common sight, but how do they work? Let’s take a look at some common technologies used today.

Photovoltaic Cells

Each PV cell is like a sandwich, made up of two slices of semiconducting material, usually silicon. When sunlight hits these cells, it excites the electrons in the silicon. This excitement creates an electric current as electrons move out of the cell. The generated electric current is then used to fuel anything, from a small gadget to an entire city.

Concentrated Solar Power

Imagine using a magnifying glass to focus sunlight onto a tiny, specific point. CSP operates on a similar principle. It uses mirrors or lenses to concentrate a vast area of sunlight onto a small area. The collected heat is so intense that it produces steam, which then drives a turbine connected to an electricity generator. It's like harnessing the might of a thousand suns onto a single point to generate electricity.

Solar Thermal Collectors

These are less about electricity and more about direct heat. Solar thermal collectors absorb sunlight and convert it directly into heat. This heat can be used for domestic purposes like water heating, or at a larger scale in industries.

Integration with Other Renewable Systems

The integration of PV technology with other renewable sources offers various options to overcome its inherent intermittent nature. These combinations are paving the way for a more resilient and sustainable energy landscape.

Solar-Wind Hybrid Systems

By combining photovoltaics and wind, these systems can provide electricity round the clock. While PV panels generate power during the day, wind turbines can keep the energy flowing during the night or cloudy days. The main point of this system is to ensure a steadier electricity supply and be more cost-effective in areas with the right climatic conditions.

Solar-Hydro Hybrid Systems

In this union, solar complements hydroelectric power. Solar panels generate electricity during the day, and the excess can be used to pump water to elevated reservoirs. During periods without sun, the stored water is released to generate hydropower. This setup acts like a large battery, storing solar for later use.

Solar-Geothermal Hybrid Systems

Combining solar with a geothermal system leverages the continuous heat from the earth with the daily solar cycle. The solar component can boost the electricity production of the geothermal installation during the day, while the geothermal system provides a consistent electricity supply regardless of weather conditions.

Solar-Biomass Hybrid Systems

Solar and biomass can be combined to provide a reliable energy supply. Solar generates electricity during sunny periods, while biomass can be used as a backup or supplementary source, utilizing organic waste to generate electricity when there is less sun available.

Transportation: Sun-Fueled Vehicles

Solar-powered transportation is an innovative application of PV technology in the mobility sector, offering an environmentally friendly alternative to traditional fuel-based transport.

Solar-Powered Electric Vehicles (EVs)

Solar can charge EV batteries. Some designs like the Mercedes-Benz Vision EQXX even incorporate solar panels directly onto the roof, allowing them to recharge while on the move. This integration reduces reliance on the traditional electricity grid and can make EVs more autonomous.

Solar Charging Stations

Public and private solar-powered charging stations provide clean fuels for EVs. These stations convert solar into electricity to charge vehicle batteries, promoting greener transportation.

Solar-Powered Public Transit

Buses and trains can be fitted with solar panels to offset their energy consumption. These systems can power onboard electronics, air conditioning, and sometimes even contribute to propulsion. In some cities, entire bus shelters are equipped with solar panels, providing electricity for lighting and other amenities.

Solar-Powered Railways

Solar panels installed alongside railway tracks or on station roofs can provide electricity to power trains. This alternative reduces reliance on fossil fuels and supports large-scale “clean” public transportation.

Latest News in the Solar World

Solar advancements have always been about pushing boundaries. Here's a look at the most recent game-changers:

Perovskite Photovotlaic Cell

Think of perovskites as the new cool kid on the solar block. They are materials with a specific crystal structure. What makes them special is their ability to absorb light efficiently. A perovskite solar cell could potentially revolutionize solar installations, making them more efficient and cost-effective.

Exciton Fission Breakthrough

At its core, exciton fission is about getting more bang for your buck. When sunlight hits a solar cell, it can produce excitons — excited states that can potentially split into two, thereby doubling the number of electrons available to produce current. This phenomenon can significantly increase solar panel efficiency, but it’s still in development.

Liquid Solar Car Fuel

Turning sunlight into liquid fuel is like turning water into wine. By using catalysts, scientists could potentially harness the sun to convert carbon dioxide and water into liquid fuels. This technology holds promise for a cleaner transport future, reducing carbon emissions.

System Recycling

As we embrace solar, we also need to think about the lifecycle of solar panels. The latest recycling methods ensure that we can recover up to 99% of the materials from defunct solar panels, ensuring sustainability in the long run.

Experimental Solar-Thermal System

By using zirconium oxide nanofluid, this system promises better cooling and efficiency than its counterparts. In layman's terms, it's like using an advanced coolant in your car's radiator, ensuring it runs smoothly even on the hottest days.

Solar-Powered Fabric: Photovoltaics in a Jacket?

Merging fashion with functionality, scientists are now working on weaving solar cells into fabric. The potential? Your jacket could one day charge your phone! While not that revolutionary, it could definitely be the more fun usage of the sun’s potential.

Global Clean Energy Goals and Main Focus of Research

These research breakthroughs aren't just for academic accolades. They play directly into global ambitions. Many countries are pledging to go 100% green in the next 30-40 years. Achieving this monumental task requires significant advancements in solar technology, making the research all the more critical. Here are some of the main research fields:

Efficiency: Higher efficiency means harnessing more energy from the same square footage of panels. By enhancing efficiency, we can generate more electricity with fewer resources, potentially reducing the costs and space requirements for solar installations and making them more accessible.

Manufacturing Costs: The potential of solar can only be fully realized when it's accessible to all. Reducing manufacturing costs means cheaper solar panels and broader adoption, pushing us closer to a greener world.

Storage Solutions: The sun doesn't shine all the time. Advancements in storage solutions ensure that the electricity that is generated during sunny hours can be stored and used when the sun isn't shining, providing a consistent energy supply.

Fun Facts: Solar Usage is Older than We Think

Here are some interesting bits of information that will paint a more vivid picture of our solar journey through time.

  1. Solar from Space: Scientists are exploring the concept of space-based PV farms. By placing solar panels in orbit, where they can receive sunlight 24/7, they can theoretically beam an uninterrupted supply of energy back to Earth.

  1. Oldest Known Solar Device: The history of using the sun goes back to around 7th century B.C., where magnifying glass spheres were used to concentrate sunlight and start fires.

  1. Solar Roads: Some countries are experimenting with solar roads, where the surface of the road itself contains solar cells, turning highways into power generators.

  1. Sunflowers Inspired Solar: The way some solar farms are designed to track the sun across the sky is inspired by how sunflowers turn their faces towards the sun – a phenomenon known as heliotropism.

  1. Photovoltaics on Mars: The Mars Rovers, including Spirit and Opportunity, have been primarily powered by solar panels, demonstrating the potential of PV technology even on other planets.

  1. World's First Solar Airport: Cochin International Airport in India became the world's first fully solar-powered airport in 2015, with over 46,000 panels covering a 45-acre stretch.

  1. Solar Windows: Innovations in solar technology have led to the development of transparent solar panels that can turn windows into electricity generators without obstructing the view.

  1. Solar-Powered Flight: The Solar Impulse 2 made history in 2016 as the first solar-powered airplane to circumnavigate the globe, flying 26,098 miles without using a single drop of fuel.

  1. Silicon: The silicon that is commonly used in PV cells is not of the same variety as the regular silicon you might picture right now. In fact, for it to be considered solar-grade, it needs to have a purity of at least 99.99%. To achieve such numbers, various complex (and expensive) processes are involved.

  1. Albert Einstein and Solar: The famous physicist Albert Einstein won a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921, not for his theory of relativity, but for his explanation of the photoelectric effect, a phenomenon central to PV technology.

Final Thoughts

The sun, in its blazing glory, is more than just a celestial body. It's a beacon of hope, a promise of a cleaner, better future. With every advancement in the field of solar, we're one step closer to realizing a world powered predominantly by renewable fuels. The age of solar is not just on the horizon—it's already here. And as the rays of innovation continue to shine bright, the future indeed looks really bright.

Posted 
Aug 20, 2023
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