Engineers Develop Solar Powered ‘Skin’ Which Could Transform Lives

By: Anmar Frangoul

University of Glasgow

Engineers at the University of Glasgow in Scotland have developed an innovative way of using the sun to power a “synthetic skin” used on prosthetic limbs.

In a news release on Wednesday, the university said that the research could help to produce advanced prosthetic limbs “capable of returning the sense of touch to amputees.”

The team at Glasgow had previously developed an “electronic skin” made from graphene to cover prosthetic hands, the university added. They had now developed a method which uses graphene’s physical properties to harness the sun’s energy and power the skin.

The university described graphene as a highly flexible form of graphite that is only a single atom thick but stronger than steel. In addition, it is both transparent and electrically conductive.

This “optical transparency” makes it capable of gathering energy from the sun in order to produce power.

Ravinder Dahiya, together with colleagues from his Bendable Electronics and Sensing Technologies group, had now added power generating photovoltaic cells to their electronic skin. Photovoltaic cells directly convert the light of the sun into electricity.

“Human skin is an incredibly complex system capable of detecting pressure, temperature and texture through an array of neural sensors which carry signals from the skin to the brain,” Dahiya, from the university’s School of Engineering, said.

“My colleagues and I have already made significant steps in creating prosthetic prototypes which integrate synthetic skin and are capable of making very sensitive pressure measurements,” Dahiya added.

“Those measurements mean the prosthetic hand is capable of performing challenging tasks like properly gripping soft materials, which other prosthetics can struggle with.”

Glasgow said that the new skin needs only 20 nanowatts of power per square centimeter, an amount “easily met even by the poorest-quality photovoltaic cells currently available on the market.”

“The other next step for us is to further develop the power-generation technology which underpins this research and use it to power the motors which drive the prosthetic hand itself,” Dahiya said. “This could allow the creation of an entirely energy-autonomous prosthetic limb.”

The team’s paper was published in the journal Advanced Functional Materials.


Edmonton Poised To Let The Sun Shine on City’s Solar Industry

By Lydia Neufeld

The City of Edmonton is looking to tweak a bylaw to make installing solar panels easier for homeowners. (NuEnergy Group)

The city of Edmonton is looking to tweak a bylaw to make it easier for homeowners to install solar panels on their houses.

The proposed changes include removing the requirement of a development permit for roof-mounted solar panels in residential neighbourhoods.

“It means less paperwork, less red tape,” said Anne Stevenson, senior planner with the city.

It also includes setting out guidelines on restricting their height and how far the panels can protrude from the side of a house.

“Right now there’s a lot of ambiguity around solar panels,” said Stevenson. “What these amendments do is make it very clear that if you follow certain parameters you won’t require a development permit.”

Timing Matters

The change is essential, said Rob Harlan, executive director of the Solar Energy Society of Alberta.

“They’ve got an existing permit process that is somewhat of a disincentive for people because it’s not always consistent, and it’s not always clear,” Harlan said Friday.

“I would call it essential. There really is a need to be ready.”– Rob Harlan, Solar Energy Society of Alberta

There is going to be a lot of growth in this industry soon as a result of a new provincial incentive program for solar panels, and the city needs to be ready for this, he added.

The Alberta government is putting up $36 million over two years for a rebate program to encourage rooftop solar panels on homes and businesses.

The rebates are expected to be available as early as this summer, said Environment Minister Shannon Phillips during the program’s announcement last month.

“There really is a need for the city to be ready for the amount of applications they’ll likely be seeing as a direct result of this incentive program,” Harlan said.

“Right now there’s, I believe, about 1,800 solar on-grid electric systems in the province,” he said. “The goal of the province is 5,000 to 10,000 by 2020.”

A public hearing on the proposed bylaw changes is set for April 10.


Tesla Will Begin Taking Solar Tile Orders Next Month

By: Robert Ferris

An image of Tesla’s solar roof, new Powerwall 2 and Tesla charger.  Image: Tesla

Tesla will begin taking orders for its solar roof tiles in April, according to Tesla CEO Elon Musk.

Musk confirmed the news in a long list of tweets he unleashed on Friday.

Tesla unveiled the solar roof shingles in late October of last year, in the days leading up to the shareholder vote on Tesla’s acquisition of the solar power company SolarCity, of which Musk had already been chairman.

The roof tiles will come in four styles: terra cotta, slate, textured glass and smooth glass, Tesla said.

The company plans to integrate the solar roof product with its existing stationary energy storage business and its electric cars.


Graphene Layer Lets Solar Panels Generate Energy From Raindrops


Researchers in China have developed Graphene solar panels that can generate energy from raindrops. The solar panels with a respectable 6.53 percent solar-to-electric conversion efficiency allows generation of power during periods of clouds and rain.

The team of researchers from the Ocean University of China in Qingdao and Yunnan Normal University in Kunming have devised the method using a highly efficient dye-sensitized solar cell, coated with a thin film of graphene, on a transparent backing of indium tin oxide and plastic.

The technology works on the fact that rainwater isn’t pure: the droplets contain positively-charged salt ions of sodium, calcium and ammonia. When raindrops sits on top of a layer of graphene, it creates a ‘pseudocapacitor’, and the potential energy difference between the two layers is strong enough to generate an electric current.

Graphene, known as wonder material is extracted from graphite, the material used in pencils. Back in 2013, one micrometer-sized flake of graphene costed more than $1,000, which made graphene one of the most expensive materials on Earth. However, prices are now down approximately $0.10 per gram.

However, the new ‘all-weather’ solar cell is still on a proof-of-concept stage. The primary challenge for the researchers is the relatively low concentrations of salt ions in rainwater compared to the salt solutions prepared in the lab, making it difficult for the panel to produce large quantities of electricity.

These newly designed solar panels could provide a boost to solar cell technology which currently only works when there is ample sunlight. In regions where climate is dominated by clouds and rain, an all-weather solar panel could provide a clean form of energy that is not possible with existing technology.


Scientists Use Solar Power to Produce Hydrogen from Biomass

By: Anmar Frangoul

RapidEye | iStock | Getty Images

Scientists at the University of Cambridge have developed a technique that uses solar power to produce clean hydrogen from biomass.

In a news release on Tuesday the university said that up until now lignocellulose – the main component of plant biomass – had only been converted into hydrogen via a gasification process that uses high temperatures to “decompose it fully.”

The university said that the new technique involved the addition of catalytic nanoparticles to alkaline water containing biomass.

The solution is put in front of a lab based light mimicking solar light, and was described as being “ideal” for absorbing the light and turning the biomass into gaseous hydrogen.

“There’s a lot of chemical energy stored in raw biomass, but it’s unrefined, so you can’t expect it to work in complicated machinery, such as a car engine,” David Wakerley, from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Chemistry, said in a statement.

“Our system is able to convert the long, messy structures that make up biomass into hydrogen gas, which is much more useful,” Wakerley added.

“We have specifically designed a combination of catalyst and solution that allows this transformation to occur using sunlight as a source of energy. With this in place we can simply add organic matter to the system and then, provided it’s a sunny day, produce hydrogen fuel.”

Different types of biomass, including wood and leaves, were used, and did not need to be processed prior to the experiments, the university said.

“Our sunlight-powered technology is exciting as it enables the production of clean hydrogen from unprocessed biomass under ambient conditions,” Erwin Reisner, head of the Christian Doppler Laboratory for Sustainable SynGas Chemistry, where the technology was developed, said.

“We see it as a new and viable alternative to high temperature gasification and other renewable means of hydrogen production,” Reisner added, before going on to say that a range of potential commercial options were being explored.