Blu-ray Discs Spin Their Way Into Making Solar Cells More Efficient

Optical storage media is on the way out, but Blu-ray discs can be repurposed to significantly increase the efficiency of solar cells

2 min read
Blu-ray Discs Spin Their Way Into Making Solar Cells More Efficient

Blu-ray had the misfortune to arrive at the very end of the era of optical storage media. Blu-ray discs are (were) certainly better than DVDs, but it was an incremental improvement at best, as they didn’t offer the same kind of revolution that the DVD offered over VHS. And with the cloud and high speed Internet becoming the standards for media storage and distribution, the future for the Blu-ray disc is a bleak one, full of shiny plastic shards in recycling bins.

Researchers at Northwestern University have hit upon a way to give Blu-ray discs a second chance at usefulness: They make excellent molds for imprinting solar cells with quasi-random nanostructures. Even the ones with terrible movies on them.

The efficiency of a solar cell is dependent on how many photons it can absorb. Quasi-random nanostructures on the subwavelength scale can be imprinted on solar cells to increase the number of photons that get trapped, but it’s very expensive to create the molds required for fabrication. Experiments have been done to see whether blank optical media could be used to cheaply and efficiently imprint these nanostructures, but the periodicity of the pattern on a blank disc wasn’t very effective at trapping photons.

The binary data on a full Blu-ray disc, on the other hand, has a nanostructure that’s very different. It consists of compressed binary sequences that have been applied with an error control modulation, so that all those segments of  ones and zeros (physically translated into islands and pits on the surface of the disc) are always between two and seven digits long. Since the length of a single digit is 75 nanometers, a full disc ends up being etched with a quasi-random pattern of islands and pits ranging in length from 150 nm to 525 nm. These dimensions happen to be “near optimal” for trapping photons in the visible and near infrared portions of the spectrum.

img Optical images of a half-patterned solar cell showing iridescent scattering due to the periodic nature of the Blu-ray pattern.

The Northwestern researchers chose to experiment with a Blu-ray copy of Police Story 3: Supercop for reasons that we can all understand. They delaminated the surface of the disc to expose the pattern of bits, and then created a negative mold. The mold was then pressed onto a pre-fabricated polymer active layer to transfer the pattern, and evaporative electrode deposition completed the solar panel.

Overall, the Blu-ray-patterned panels absorbed an impressive 21.8 percent more light than non-patterned panels. This raised the panels’ power conversion efficiency by nearly 12 percent. And as the researchers point out, it doesn’t matter at all what the data on a disc is, as long as it’s full of something that’s been quasi-randomized by data compression and error control modulation. You can use bad movies, terrible movies, or even Manos: The Hands of Fate

While it’s certainly appealing to think about recycling our Blu-ray discs directly into more efficient solar panels, a more realistic approach might be to use the mass-production infrastructure that’s already in place to create optical media that’s adapted to improving solar cell performance.

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Smokey the AI

Smart image analysis algorithms, fed by cameras carried by drones and ground vehicles, can help power companies prevent forest fires

7 min read
Smokey the AI

The 2021 Dixie Fire in northern California is suspected of being caused by Pacific Gas & Electric's equipment. The fire is the second-largest in California history.

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

The 2020 fire season in the United States was the worst in at least 70 years, with some 4 million hectares burned on the west coast alone. These West Coast fires killed at least 37 people, destroyed hundreds of structures, caused nearly US $20 billion in damage, and filled the air with smoke that threatened the health of millions of people. And this was on top of a 2018 fire season that burned more than 700,000 hectares of land in California, and a 2019-to-2020 wildfire season in Australia that torched nearly 18 million hectares.

While some of these fires started from human carelessness—or arson—far too many were sparked and spread by the electrical power infrastructure and power lines. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) calculates that nearly 100,000 burned hectares of those 2018 California fires were the fault of the electric power infrastructure, including the devastating Camp Fire, which wiped out most of the town of Paradise. And in July of this year, Pacific Gas & Electric indicated that blown fuses on one of its utility poles may have sparked the Dixie Fire, which burned nearly 400,000 hectares.

Until these recent disasters, most people, even those living in vulnerable areas, didn't give much thought to the fire risk from the electrical infrastructure. Power companies trim trees and inspect lines on a regular—if not particularly frequent—basis.

However, the frequency of these inspections has changed little over the years, even though climate change is causing drier and hotter weather conditions that lead up to more intense wildfires. In addition, many key electrical components are beyond their shelf lives, including insulators, transformers, arrestors, and splices that are more than 40 years old. Many transmission towers, most built for a 40-year lifespan, are entering their final decade.

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