Dept. of Out There? Solar panel decals and other new-fangled ideas


By: SGN Staff


By Doug Peeples

SGN News Editor


In many ways, smart grid is like any other marketplace: Not every great, innovative idea will make it through the grind of concept, design, testing and evaluation to become a new product or service. But it is kind of fun to see what cutting edge creations researchers and developers are coming up with and which ones might actually make it through the hoops to commercialization.


Here are several that caught our eye from the realms of solar power and EV battery/energy storage R&D.


Peel-and-stick solar panels?

Researchers at the Stanford School of Engineering say yes. A major drawback to most traditional solar cells is that they're rigid and used in panels that are stiff and often heavy, which severely restricts where and how they can be used, according to a report in PhysOrg.


Xiaolin Zheng, a Stanford assistant professor of mechanical engineering and lead author of the project report, explained what his team did this way: "Nonconventional or 'universal' substrates are difficult to use because they typically have irregular surfaces and they don't do well with the thermal and chemical processing necessary to produce today's solar cells. We got around this problem by developing this peel-and-stick process, which gives thin-film solar cells flexibility and attachment potential we've never seen before, and also reduces their general cost and weight."


While Zheng acknowledges he and his team have a lot more to investigate, he also sees a wealth of potential for the technology. "Now you can put them on helmets, cell phones, convex windows, portable electronic devices, curved roofs, clothing - virtually anything."


Better solar cell performance

A team of German and Australian scientists have come up with their own development for a better performing solar cell. Also reported in PhysOrg, this version incorporates dye-based solar cells. We'll skip the technical explanation for how it works because it's pretty intense, but essentially a tweak in the means a dye is used instead of a semiconductor to trap light. It's considered a promising approach and if it works out as hoped the result will be more efficient and more cost effective solar cells.


And not to be outdone...

It's not news that the solar panel industry has generally been in rough shape lately with major panel makers recording losses in a market flooded with product. But Silicon Valley startup Silevo is so convinced of its panel's superiority and the company's ability to build it cheaply enough to compete with China's larger manufacturers that it's planning to build a new factory this year.


Silevo's approach seems to make a lot of sense. Rather than develop new manufacturing processes, which take a lot of time and money, the company starts with silicon wafers used in conventional solar cells, then adds techniques and processes borrowed from the chip industry and flat-panel display technologies. Silevo also has replaced the silver usually used to collect electricity from the solar panels with much cheaper copper, according to an article in MIT Technology Review.


But the outlook isn't all sunny for Silevo. Observers say the company will have production problems to solve and will need to continue cutting costs while maintaining high quality to compete with dropping conventional panel costs and very cheap natural gas. Also, the company doesn't have a long track record to take to the bank.

Graphene: Great potential for energy storage?

We've written about graphene and its potential for revolutionizing materials science and electronics. It's hard to believe the stuff actually exists since it's made of carbon sheets one atom thick, is remarkably strong and equal to or better than copper as a conductor. Now, researchers from Rice University have come up with a new hybrid material that incorporates it into a seamless conductor. Essentially the researchers have created nanotubes that grow from sheets of graphene resulting in a material with a very large surface area, a primary consideration in building devices like energy-storing supercapacitors. Project leader James Tour was quoted as saying "The performance we see in this study is as good as the best carbon-based supercapacitors ever made."


EVs with infinite range... maybe, maybe not

Researchers at Toyohashi University of Technology in Japan have successfully demonstrated an EV that is wirelessly charged through the tires. According to Torque News, the concept involves an inductive circuit between a steel belt in the tires and electrodes buried in the road surface. The steel belts are connected to the car and deliver power to an onboard energy storage unit that powers the car's motor. While their 1/32 scale model performed efficiently, it's pretty unlikely that this technology will be adopted in its present form anytime soon because it would require tearing up entire road systems to add the necessary electricity transmission pads.


And a couple more technologies to consider, one definitely out there and another that looks pretty solid.

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