Book-Sized Solar Panels Could Power A Whole Home In New Breakthrough

By: Colm Gorey

Image: kkays2/Shutterstock

In our efforts to make solar panels even more efficient, a team of scientists has found a way of funnelling the sun’s power.

The technology around solar power is experiencing a major boom at the moment, with it now increasingly becoming cheaper to run than traditional fossil fuel energy sources in some instances.

But it is still a long way from achieving the efficiency we want it to, which has led a team of scientists to develop a pioneering new technique that could effectively ‘funnel’ solar energy in greater amounts than before.

In a paper published to Nature Communications, the team from the University of Exeter detailed its breakthrough, which could see the potential for three times the amount of solar energy generated than traditional systems.

This, the team believes, could see the creation of solar panels that are no bigger than a book being used to power an entire home.

“The idea is similar to pouring a liquid into a container – as we all know, it is much more efficient if we use a funnel,” said Adolfo de Sanctis, lead author of the paper.

“However, such charge funnels cannot be realised with conventional semiconductors, and only the recent discovery of atomically thin materials has enabled this discovery.”

Key ingredient

The physicists achieved this major feat with a chip made from an atomically thin semiconductor called hafnium disulphide, which was oxidised with a high-intensity UV laser.

The team was then able to engineer an electric field that funnels electrical charges to a specific area of the chip, where they can be more easily extracted.

Breaking it down into figures, the new technique has the potential to convert around 60pc of the raw power of the sun into usable solar energy, compared with 20pc found in existing systems.

Until this technology can be implemented into existing panels, innovators such as Eden Full Goh are attempting to find ways of overcoming the challenge that Earth’s rotation around the sun poses for harnessing solar energy.


Power To The Pupils: Solar Panels Keep Kenya’s Kids In School

Mihingoni is one of eight mostly off-grid primary schools in the southeastern coastal county of Kilifi that have been fitted with a solar array.

New Delhi: From a mile away, the roof of Mihingoni Primary School glitters in Kenya’s midday sun. The effect, though, comes not from the roof but from what is on it: a sparkling array of solar panels.

Mihingoni is one of eight mostly off-grid primary schools in the southeastern coastal county of Kilifi that have been fitted with a solar array.

The key task of the 800-watt panels is to power tablet computers that pupils use under the government’s strategy to integrate e-learning into primary education.

Last year more than 1 million of the devices were distributed to primary school students across the country – among them Mihingoni’s pupils. But tablets require electricity, which many rural schools lack.

Mihingoni primary is connected to the national grid, but power is expensive, and only its computer room has electricity, limiting charging of the devices.

But “since the solar panels were fitted (in January), pupils can have access to their tablets any time, and the cost of power has considerably gone down,” said Kuchanja Karisa, headmaster of the school, about 35 kilometres (22 miles) north of the coastal city of Mombasa.

In his impoverished area, he said, access to electricity boosts access to education, not least because the cost of power is factored into school fees.

“Poverty levels in this area are high, and any slight increase or decrease in school fees affects school attendance,” he said.


The panels are part of a project run by two British-based organisations to provide solar power to primary schools and clinics in remote, off-grid communities.

The OVO Foundation – the charitable arm of a green-leaning energy firm – provides funding, while Energy 4 Impact, a charity that works on accelerating access to energy, does the installation.

The need is great: thousands of Kenyan schools lack access to the national power grid.

Figures from the education ministry show the country had 29,460 primary schools as of 2014, of which nearly 22,000 were state schools.

As of last December, about 24,000 primary schools were connected to the grid, according to Simon Gicharu who chairs the government’s rural electrification program.

A lack of power at unconnected schools, however, makes it difficult for students to take full advantage of tablets provided under the e-learning programme, Karisa said.

At Mihingoni, for example, pupils unable to access the computer lab to charge their tablets – which have an eight-hour battery life – ended up using them less, the headmaster said.

At the school, students previously paid 1,500 Kenyan shillings ($15) a year for electricity. But today, with the solar panels, there is a much lower fee – 500 shillings ($5), which goes to pay for more grid power in the rainy season when the solar panels work less effectively.

Cutting costs “has seen a sharp increase in the number of students who have since joined the school”, Karisa said.

In 2017, the school had about 50 pupils in each class, he said. Now it has 140, with the lower cost encouraging more parents to send their children to school.

Annual fees at the school are about 700 shillings ($7) per primary school student, apart from the energy supplement.

“Every coin counts for area locals,” Karisa said.


Fifty kilometres north is Migodomani Primary School, which also had solar panels installed in January.

Headmaster Ngala Kahindi Luwali told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that until the panels were available, his pupils had been unable to use tablets at all.

“With the solar panels we have been able to catch up with other schools in urban areas that have already incorporated e-learning,” he said. “Pupils are enthusiastic with e-learning since it’s a new method of teaching.”

The panels power not only the tablets, but projectors and a television – none of which the school previously had been able to use.

The array also provides lighting to the school’s boarding facilities, where students once relied on costly and polluting paraffin lanterns.

Gaby Sethi, who heads the OVO Foundation, said she believes providing access to clean electricity in parts of the world without power can help people get ahead.

“We think we can have a significant impact on people and children’s lives if we’re electrifying schools and health clinics,” she said.

Under the project, the panels and installation are free, with the schools paying for ongoing maintenance costs, Karisa said.

Gabriel Katana, the county’s head of education and information and communications technology, said the local government wants to see solar panels installed to power hospitals and other social amenities too.

“In the future we will … purchase solar pumps to use in irrigating food to be grown in the schools to feed the pupils,” he said.

The ambition is to use solar power for all of the county’s primary school needs – not just powering information technology, he said.


Relying on solar panels has some drawbacks, however – including that they can be less effective in rainy and cold seasons, said Mihingoni Primary School’s Karisa.

At those times, the school has to revert back to using kerosene for lighting and grid power for electricity, he said.

Daniel Kuria, who manages Energy 4 Impact’s solar programme in Kenya, agreed there is a need for a solar array that generates sufficient power in the rainy season.

Mihingoni primary will get an improved battery system to store solar power and help bridge the gap, he said.

For now, the solar panels – and lower school fees as a result – are helping keep students in school, Karisa said.

Parents “can use the flimsiest of excuses to keep their children home, so it’s important to have cheap, reliable energy, like solar, that will not expense the parents,” he said.


Space-Based Solar Power: How Close To Reality?

The technology is further along than you might think for capturing solar energy in space – where the sun always shines – and beaming it to Earth.

By: Deanna Conners

Artist’s concept of the transmission of space-based solar power. Image via JAXA.

The idea of capturing solar energy in space where the sun never stops shining and beaming it to Earth may seem far-fetched, but such technology is further along than most realize. In early 2018, scientists from the California Institute of Technology announced that they had succeeded in creating a prototype capable of harnessing and transmitting solar energy from space.

Their prototype is a lightweight tile that consists of three main components. There are optical reflectors that concentrate the sunlight, photovoltaic cells that convert the sunlight to electricity, and an integrated circuit that converts the electricity to radio frequency energy, which can be transmitted to Earth through an attached antenna. Many individual tiles can be strung together to form large solar arrays in space. A ground-based microwave receiver on Earth would be used to intercept the incoming radio frequency energy and convert it back into useable electricity.

The scientists demonstrated that their prototype works by subjecting it to space-like conditions in the laboratory and using it to power a light-emitting diode (LED) located about 20 inches (50 centimeters) away from the tile.

Besides technological know-how, there are still other barriers that must be overcome before space-based solar power becomes feasible. Interestingly, a good article published in The Smithsonian back in 2016 tackles the main barriers to space-based solar power – costs, safety, land for ground-based receivers – in such a way that leaves one thinking these barriers may not be that big of a deal. According to the article in The Smithsonian, one of the biggest barriers may be the amount of congestion encountered when transmitting radio frequency waves, as these frequencies are the same ones we use for our radios, televisions and cellphones.

Other countries besides the U.S., including China, Europe, India, and Japan, are working on this technology too. Presently, many designs for space-based solar power have been proposed.

The concept of space-based solar power is not new. In fact, this technology was mentioned way back in 1941 in the science fiction story “Reason” written by Isaac Asimov. Today, the technology for turning such science fiction into reality is developing rapidly and warrants additional attention.

Bottom line: Scientists from Caltech have developed a lightweight, functional prototype that could form the basis for future solar energy harvesting from space.

If you want to geek out, you can access all of the exciting details about this new technology in their paper. This paper was published in the proceedings of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) conference that took place January 8–12, 2018, in Kissimmee, Florida, and it was co-authored by 15 different scientists. Lead author Eleftherios Gdoutos is a research scientist at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).

A key feature of the new tile design is that it is really lightweight — at 1.5 kilograms (3.3 lb) per square meter, it weighs a little more than a large pizza. Lightweight features are essential for keeping the launch and construction costs down. Moreover, the new tile design in which each unit is capable of generating and transmitting solar power individually is advantageous because this negates the need for a heavy power distribution system in space. Such a design also makes it easier to expand on missions and to make repairs without losing much functionality. In the future, the scientists plan on seeing if further weight reductions can be achieved by the incorporation of new lightweight materials.

Research on space-based solar power has been ongoing at Caltech, where professors Harry Atwater, Ali Hajimiri, and Sergio Pellegrino have received funding from the Northrop Grumman Corporation to study the potential of this source of clean energy.


Photo Exhibition Demonstrates Green Future of Biomass Energy

A photo displayed at the exhibition depicts children playing by a sugarcane farm. There are 11 sugar mills across the country generating biomass energy to sell to the grid. — Photos courtesy of GIZ

A photo exhibition entitled “Biomass energy-for a green future” is opening at the Saigon Exhibition Convention Centre in HCM City’s District 7.

The exhibition, organised by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) Climate Finance Readiness Programme of Germany, aims to manifest the immense potential of renewable energy development, especially biomass energy in Vi?t Nam.

About 20 photos by photographers from across the country are displayed at the exhibition featuring individuals, organisations and localities which are now making a great contribution to the cause of promoting clean and eco-friendly energy sources in Vi?t Nam.

Each photo tells story about efforts in improving society’s awareness of the importance of biomass energy in helping reduce the impacts of climate change as well as maintaining sustainable agricultural development.

Every year, 16.75 MW of biomass power generated by the Lasuco sugar mill feeds into the provincial grid through the 100 kV M?c S?n substation to provide electricity for approximately 700 thousand people in the central province of Thanh Hóa, in the four districts of Th? Xuân, Th??ng Xuân, Ng?c L?c and Tri?u S?n.

Viet Nam is one of the most rapidly growing economies in Southeast Asia. This rapid growth goes hand-in-hand with a rising demand for electricity, which is set to increase exponentially by the year 2020, a report from the GIZ said.

Recent scientific research has shown that by the end of 2014, the country could have exploited approximately 20.67 million tons of wood energy and 52.91 million tons of agriculture residues, mainly rice husk, straw and bagasse.

Biomass energy, which has the potential to utilise millions of tons of agricultural residue including bagasse, rice husk and woods, plays an important role in generating clean electricity and contributing to rural development while at the same time reducing carbon emissions and mitigating climate change impacts.


Can Atlanta Run Entirely On Renewable Energy by 2035?


By: Matt Smith

Atlanta made its municipal name as a transit hub—for trains first, then jetliners.

Now the city that’s home to the world’s busiest airport is hoping to add “green energy pioneer” to its brag book.

The city is working to put flesh on a framework to run entirely on renewable power by 2035. That would cover both municipal operations, including Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, and all the lights, appliances, and air conditioners in town.

The city laid down that ambitious marker in 2017 with a unanimous vote by the City Council. Now a new mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, has sent a plan to reach those goals to the council, which is expected to vote on it later this year.

The plan has three basic pillars: Cutting expected demand through conservation; meeting as much of that demand through locally generated renewable energy, particularly solar power; and purchasing renewable power from out-of-state to fill in the gaps. But the detail and timelines are being tweaked as the plan progresses, said J.P. Matzigkeit, chairman of the council’s City Utilities Committee.

“I would like to see us truly be green and to not have to spend money on energy credits outside of the local area to achieve our goal,” said Matzigkeit, whose committee is studying the proposal now.

More than two dozen cities nationwide, including San Francisco, Minneapolis, and St. Louis, have set 100 percent clean power targets. Atlanta is the largest to do so in the Southeast, where utilities have traditionally leaned heavily on coal-burning power plants.

“Our job is to work to make that happen and to show people that this can be good for both the environment as well as their pocketbook, and that Atlanta can lead the nation in this area,” Matzigkeit added.

Matt Cox, who helped draft the Atlanta plan, said it balances what’s technically and economically achievable in the next 17 years.

Cox is the CEO of The Greenlink Group, a clean energy consulting firm that used sophisticated computer models to estimate Atlanta’s future power demands down to an hourly level. The model then projected how those needs could be met with a mix of options and how consumers and industry would respond to them. Then, in a series of public meetings through the end of 2017, Atlantans were invited to come and play with the assumptions that went into the model.

“Citizens could walk up and say, ‘Maybe I don’t want to take up the entirety of the opportunities in solar, maybe I just want to take half, and I really want to ramp up efficiency as far as we can take it.’ And they could see the policy implications of that,” Cox said. “We’d show them what the fix would look like in 2035, here are the costs, here are the benefits.”

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