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New Device Could Make Solar Cheaper, More Efficient

solar panels 

If you're an environmental enthusiast, you're probably well educated about the recent innovations in green energy. You're likely familiar with the latest, impressive Solar Impulse project, in which the world-breaking Solar Impulse 2 has become the first solar-powered aircraft to fly around the world — and by the way, the plane is currently in Tulsa, Okla. Maybe you've even spent some time installing solar panels on your roof in your noble quest to make your household more green.

The latest and greatest in solar technology? A simple light-trapping prism that's broken another world record in solar efficiency.

How Does the Solar Prism Work?

The glass prism, which maximizes the amount of energy it can derive from sunlight, contains a 28-square centimeter, four-junction miniature module that works by utilizing a hybrid receiver designed to convert electricity from each sunbeam more than other devices. The four junctions divide the rays into four separate bands. The prism includes a band-reflect filter measuring 900 to 1,050 nanometers and multiple solar cells to trap light. The ultimate goal is to eventually increase the mini-module to 800 square centimeters.

How Was the Prism Developed?

The solar-efficient prism was built by a research team, led by Martin Green and Mark Keevers, at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Australia. Green, who serves as director of the Australian Centre for Advanced Photovoltaics at the university, says the device is still in the prototype phase and probably won't be commercially available for at least another decade. But ultimately, the researchers have hopes that the prism could be used on rooftops — both on residential homes and business buildings — to create a widespread breakthrough in solar efficiency.

Just How Efficient Is the Prism?

 According to preliminary studies with the light-trapping prism, the device has broken solar-efficiency records because it has converted 34.5 percent of solar energy into usable electricity. That may not sound like much, but it's substantially more than currently available technology is capable of achieving. The previous solar-efficiency record, set by a module created by the U.S. solar company Alta Devices, was 24 percent. The typical efficiency range for available solar panels is between 14 and 22 percent.

What Are the Implications of Solar Technology?

If you're not entirely aware of the benefits of moving toward solar energy, consider how taxing fossil fuels such as natural gas, oil and coal are on the environment. These fossil fuels not only release toxins into the environment, but they also contribute to climate change through carbon dioxide emissions into the air.

Solar power is considered green — or "clean" — energy because it doesn't pollute the air or water, and it doesn't emit dangerous gases. It's a viable alternative to natural gases for a variety of purposes, from everyday cooking to home heating. For example, according to Smart Touch Energy's Guide to Home Heating Systems, 18 days of sunshine is equivalent to the planet's availability of fossil fuels like oil, gas and coals.

Plus, solar power is relatively inexpensive. Photovoltaic systems, like UNSW's light-trapping prism, have experienced a 45 percent cost decrease since 2010. And many state and federal agencies offer benefits like tax credits for switching to cleaner energy sources.

What Are the Disadvantages of Solar Energy?

Despite recent innovations in efficiency, solar-powered electricity is not without its disadvantages. Most importantly, solar energy can't be generated at night or during periods of heavy cloud cover. The efficiency also depends on the angle that the sun is facing the solar panels — buildings and homes will experience reduced electricity when the angle isn't optimal, even during abundant sunlight. In addition, solar panels can deteriorate over time with exposure to ultraviolet rays.

Still, in the long run, the benefits of sustainable living by investing in solar-powered devices may outweigh the cons, especially in the near future. But even if you're on the fence about the issue, you can help save the planet in other, smaller ways — as easy as making a commitment to recycling regularly, even if you have one more bin to carry outside once a week on trash day. 

Photo credits: Scott Webb.

Kayla Matthews writes and blogs about healthy living and has an especially strong passion for helping others increase their mental health and happiness by improving their daily productivity and positivity. To learn more about Kayla, you can follow her on Facebook and Twitter and check out her most recent posts on Productivity Theory. Read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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