A Solar Energy Evolution: Modern Methods for Harnessing an Ancient Power Source

by | Apr 7, 2017 | Energy Feature

It is fairly easy to construct a convincing argument that we are in the midst of an energy revolution right now and solar power is leading the way.

Harnessing the power of the sun is not necessarily a new concept but technological advances have made it much more commercially viable to rely on solar energy in the future for a significant proportion of our global energy needs.

Here is a look at how solar energy has evolved and what the future holds for this increasingly popular renewable source. There is an overview of how solar energy is produced and what it offers in comparison to other resources. Plus a peek into the future of solar power and why perovskites might offer an efficient solution.

A future-proof resource?

The sun has been producing energy for billions of years and it has managed to power life on earth for millions of years so far, and we have no reason at the moment to expect anything different a long way into the future.

You can’t talk about fossil fuels with the same level of positivity and optimism and although no one can actually predict when these resources will no longer be a viable option for the earth, it is clear that there is an end date coming for this option as a source of energy.

Aside from the supply and demand issues, there is also a strong argument in favor of a green energy resource like solar power, which is why millions of dollars have been invested in technology to improve the way we harness this power and make it more freely available as a global energy source.

The future of solar power technology would appear to be as bright as the sun itself and in less than ten years from now, it is predicted to have become the dominant energy resource.

How it works

In basic terms, solar photovoltaic (PV) devices or solar cells, are used to transform sunlight directly into electricity.

A combination of these PV cells arranged into large panels is capable of producing enough electricity for a single house. It is then a simple case of economies of scale and if you have PV plants that cover many acres of land with their panels, this will then be able to power many thousand of homes.

A major attraction of using solar energy systems is the fact that they do not produce air pollutants or carbon dioxide, and have minimal impact on the environment.

A downside to relying on solar power is that the amount of sunlight hitting the earth’s surface is not constant, but that is why extensive research and development is ongoing to find the most efficient way of collecting and storing the energy available.

Perovskites might hold the key

The vast majority of commercially available solar panels currently use silicon cells, but even the most advanced PV panel is unable to achieve a maximum efficiency that is much beyond 30% and sometimes nearer to 20%.

Research is underway to try and find a way of cutting down on this wasted energy and it appears that the solution could lie in a material known as perovskite.

Although the name is derived from a mineral that was discovered by a Russian mineralogist called Count Lev Aleksevich Perovski back in the 1800’s, it is also the name for a synthetic compound that has been designed to achieve the same orthorhombic crystal structure as the naturally occurring mineral.

The relevance of this is that it has been discovered that these synthetic perovskites have the capacity to offer superconductivity, as well as offering other useful properties in the form of giant magnetoresistance, and photovoltaic activity.

These attributes are particularly useful because trials have shown that they are capable of greatly improving the efficiency of solar panels using synthetic perovskites, which could make a substantial difference in terms of reducing the amount of energy currently wasted with existing PV panels.

NASA technology

There are a number of technologies that are often developed by the space industry and then subsequently adopted commercially at a later date, and this is the case with a multi-layered solar cell that can be found on the side of a spacecraft at the present time.

Each layer of the cell has a band gap tuned to a particular wavelength of light, allowing the multi-junction cells to get nearer 40% efficiency.

This is better than any panel commercially available at the moment, but the technology is cost-prohibitive as it stands although there is optimism that this may find its way into mainstream panel production techniques at some point in the future.

Zak Ford is passionate about green energy and writes about this as well as political and economic matters in his articles.

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