Canadian Researcher Invents New Solar Cell
Author: Astrid Poei
Researchers at the University of Toronto have invented a flexible plastic solar cell that is said to be five times more efficient than current methods in converting energy from the sun into electrical energy.
Team leader Ted Sargent, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the university, said the cell harnesses infrared light from the sun and can form a flexible film on the surface of cloth, paper or other materials.
And the film can turn 30 percent of the sun's power into usable electrical energy -- a far better performance than the 6 percent gleaned from the best plastic solar cells now in use.
"The fact that these materials harness the sun's energy using flexible materials potentially could allow you to weave the plastics into fibers, sort of the way we have synthetic fibers already, and to weave those into clothing and make something that's a wearable solar cell," Sargent said from Boston, where he is working until the summer.
"That's sort of portable electricity."
Sargent said the coating could be woven into a shirt or sweater and used to charge an item like a cellphone.
"We expect that our cellphones or our e-mail can go anywhere with us, but we don't have that expectation of a continuous supply of power. The best that we have is batteries, which run out," he said.
"So if we could have a wireless source of power like how the sun would provide, this would be pretty exciting."
Research about the new cell was published in the Sunday online edition of the scientific journal Nature Materials, and Sargent said he was now looking for investors who could turn the invention into a commercially viable product.
Terry White, president of the Solar Energy Society of Canada said solar cells on these lines could transform the industry.
"If they make (solar cells) both less expensive and the potential applications more varied, then it's a major breakthrough," he said.
Sargent said the technology could be available to the average consumer within five to ten years. But it already has Wall Street venture capitalists interested.
"The technology really caught my eye both in the scientific literature and the business prospects," said Josh Wolfe, managing partner at Lux Capital in Manhattan, a venture capital firm that makes an estimated $1- to $2-million US investment per project in early stage nanotechnology.
"So the concept of having rollable newspaper displays or other things that could power your laptop or portable devices or create new products that are best left to the creativity of the engineers, to me, it represents a pretty sea-change."
So what happens if the sun doesn't shine?
"There is obviously no power in the visible (light)," said Sargent. "But in the infrared, it's not completely zero power. It doesn't have to be as hot as the sun, but everything that's warm, gives off some heat. Even people and animals give off heat. So there actually is some power remaining in the infrared even when it appears to us to be dark outside."