Solar Windows: New Ultra-Thin Cells Generate Power From Artificial Light

Advances could expand potential of transparent solar surfaces.

1 min read
Solar Windows: New Ultra-Thin Cells Generate Power From Artificial Light

Look at any of the glimmering, glass-only skyscrapers in a metropolis near you. Next, imagine that all those windows were coated with invisible solar cells, generating electricity. Even the ones facing north. That's a lot of electricity.

One company is close to releasing a prototype of such a solar window that improves on existing versions with its ability to draw power from artificial sources of light. New Energy Technologies, based in Maryland, has managed to create arrays of solar cells that are only one-tenth of a micrometer thick; each individual cell is smaller across than a grain rice, and they're gathered in groups of 20 that are coated onto the glass to create a see-through solar window.

They are far from the first to create a transparent solar surface. In recent tests, though, the company reports that their cells - an "organic" cell made from what they call "hydrogen-carbon based materials" - outperformed other solar materials in artificial lighting conditions, including a 10-fold greater output power density than thin-film amorphous-silicon, another possibility for ultra-thin solar generation.

"One of the biggest issues with today’s solar products is their dependency on direct sunlight, which our cells have demonstrated the potential capacity to overcome," said Meetesh V. Patel, the president and CEO of New Energy Technologies, in a press release.

Of course, the cost of such windows may prove to be prohibitive, at least in the near term. A call to the company to ask about those costs has yet to be returned.

Image via Alvesgaspar/Wikimedia Commons

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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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