Solar Power Gets Big Boost from Nano


This article was published by Newsletter, issue #5, 2005-03-10.

A new plastic composite, invented at the University of Toronto, could make possible a revolution in converting solar power into electrical energy. The infrared-sensitive material is reportedly five times more efficient than current solar technology for capturing the sun's rays and converting them into electricity. If all goes as planned, this super thin material could be applied to any surfaces that receive infrared (IR) radiation from the sun, such as rooftops, the walls of rooms that get ambient light, and even clothing. The material utilizes nanotechnology, specifically, minute particles called "quantum dots", which are only three to four nanometers across. These tiny particles are combined with a polymer, in order to produce the photosensitive plastic. Because such plastics can be made flexible, it is possible that the quantum dots could be embedded on the surface of everyday devices, including jackets and pants. As a result, hand-held electronic devices — such as cell phones and PDAs — could receive all of their needed power simply from the clothing worn by the device's user.

This remarkable new material was discovered by a research team led by Ted Sargent, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the university. The discovery was reported in an article dated 9 January 2005, on the website of CTV, a Canadian broadcast company. The scientific details were published on the website of Nature Materials on the same day, and in the journal's February 2005 issue. The new material is capable of converting up to 30% of sunlight into electrical energy — a fivefold improvement over current plastic solar cells, which can only convert about six percent of received sunlight. In the article, Professor Sargent is quoted as stating in a phone interview that, "…there's enough power from the sun hitting the Earth every day to supply all the world's needs for energy 10,000 times over."

Sargent laments the fact that people walking around with various handheld devices are frequently in need of plugging them in, just to recharge their batteries. It would be far more convenient for the devices to pull power directly from the owner's outerwear and possibly the outside shell of the device itself. He believes that this would make possible a truly wireless world. This seems like a reasonable conclusion, as consumers would not be restricted to powering their electricity-hungry devices from power cords plugged into wall outlets, or batteries with limited energy storage capacities.

Perhaps most exciting of all, from an ecological standpoint, is the tantalizing possibility that all of our power needs could be met by coating this photosensitive material on all man-made items that would be exposed to direct or ambient sunlight — which is probably the majority of our goods and structures. Doing so could theoretically make it possible for mankind to cease burning fossil fuels, building massive hydroelectric plants and the dams to power them, and generating radioactive waste from nuclear power plants. Putting an end to these unsustainable energy practices would have an unquestionably profound impact upon the quality of our air and water, in addition to eliminating the need for ugly power lines, dangerous nuclear reactors, and homes filled with electrical lines and fire-starting electrical cords.

Copyright © 2005 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.