A fully transparent solar cell that could make every window and screen a power source

Researchers at Michigan State University have created a fully transparent solar concentrator, which could turn any window or sheet of glass (like your smartphone’s screen) into a photovoltaic solar cell. Unlike other “transparent” solar cells that we’ve reported on in the past, this one really is transparent, as you can see in the photos throughout this story. According to Richard Lunt, who led the research, the team are confident that the transparent solar panels can be efficiently deployed in a wide range of settings, from “tall buildings with lots of windows or any kind of mobile device that demands high aesthetic quality like a phone or e-reader.”

Scientifically, a transparent solar panel is something of an oxymoron. Solar cells, specifically the photovoltaic kind, make energy by absorbing photons (sunlight) and converting them into electrons (electricity). If a material is transparent, however, by definition it means that all of the light passes through the medium to strike the back of your eye. This is why previous transparent solar cells have actually only been partially transparent – and, to add insult to injury, they usually they cast a colorful shadow too.

To get around this limitation, the Michigan State researchers use a slightly different technique for gathering sunlight. Instead of trying to create a transparent photovoltaic cell (which is nigh impossible), they use a transparent luminescent solar concentrator (TLSC). The TLSC consists of organic salts that absorb specific non-visible wavelengths of ultraviolet and infrared light, which they then luminesce (glow) as another wavelength of infrared light (also non-visible). This emitted infrared light is guided to the edge of plastic, where thin strips of conventional photovoltaic solar cell convert it into electricity. [Research paper: DOI: 10.1002/adom.201400103 – “Near-Infrared Harvesting Transparent Luminescent Solar Concentrators”]

If you look closely, you can see a couple of black strips along the edges of plastic block. Otherwise, though, the active organic material – and thus the bulk of the solar panel – is highly transparent. (Read: Solar singlet fission bends the laws of physics to boost solar power efficiency by 30%.)

Michigan’s TLSC currently has an efficiency of around 1%, but they think 5% should be possible. Non-transparent luminescent concentrators (which bathe the room in colorful light) max out at around 7%. On their own these aren’t huge figures, but on a larger scale – every window in a house or office block – the numbers quickly add up. Likewise, while we’re probably not talking about a technology that can keep your smartphone or tablet running indefinitely, replacing your device’s display with a TLSC could net you a few more minutes or hours of usage on a single battery charge.

The researchers are confident that the technology can be scaled all the way from large industrial and commercial applications, down to consumer devices, while remaining “affordable.” So far, one of the larger barriers to large-scale adoption of solar power is the intrusive and ugly nature of solar panels – obviously, if we can produce large amounts of solar power from sheets of glass and plastic that look like normal sheets of glass and plastic, then that would be big.

19 thoughts on “A fully transparent solar cell that could make every window and screen a power source”

  1. I live in Yuma Arizona and it is very hot here if there is a test program I would love to be in it . I think yuma is the place to test your SOLAR CELL.

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  2. I was wondering if there would be any possibilities for investing ,so as to help get this project up and running…it’s a fantastic idea and one that could revolutionize Solar power…I’m an avid supporter of any alternative power sources. When this project becomes viable will it also be environmentally friendly ie using recycled plastics and glass etc..? Upwards and onwards …

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  3. I was wondering if there would be any possibilities for investing ,so as to help get this project up and running…it’s a fantastic idea and one that could revolutionize Solar power…I’m an avid supporter of any alternative power sources. When this project becomes viable will it also be environmentally friendly ie using recycled plastics and glass etc..? Upwards and onwards …I’ve never mad any remarks before… As this is a new site for me….so please fix the website..

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  4. I love this new and exciting invention, it’s revolutionary. I live in Cape Town, South Africa and would like to know more about applying to be an agent/distributor for Africa. Regards Alan

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  5. I live in South Africa. The while of Southern Africa is blessed with an abundance of sunlight all year round. In addition the countries are very large with very little electrical infrstrature. Mobile communications have thrived and brought big benefit. If this technology can be scaled up and made economical, there is big potential in Southern Africa.

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  6. I’m very curious about the cost of production and whether there are any yet for sale. 1% is low but not to low to be useful.

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  7. Excellent.. A need f an hour. Renewable energy, Solar energy are lot to be researched upon. India is a country where chances of research n investment are 100 folds.

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  8. Loved the technology. I would like to know how we work out the price. As otherwise It will be difficult to convince ordinary people to use these. It Is indeed a key factor for the product’s wide reach and usage.

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  9. I hope this will make a big difference in our utility bill. If big business doesn’t shut u down. Which would be a shame. But the big boys don’t like it when it hurt their wallets

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  10. Hello, I would be very interested to assist in any possible way to help get this moving forward. I can volunteer any hours free of charge. It would be an honor to help. I live in Toronto Canada.

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  11. Brillant initiative and super research programme, Would like to support the development programme by contribution and manufacturing Joint venture as and when commercial development is initiated.

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  12. What a great invention. Living in a country with almost 365 day’s of sunshine it seems the perfect way to work towards a cleaner, protected sustainable world. Wish one could already get hold of the cells to make a little change.

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  13. I hope this is real and that there will be publicity to make people aware of it. If you don’t get it out there, it will be squashed by the big businesses that make their money from nonrenewable resources and the politicians they support. This needs a mass movement that can’t be stopped!

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