Not your parent's solar panels

Photo: www.konarka.com

Solar panels are a familiar sight in the green scene: a big, rectangular piece of black glass using silicon wafers. First developed in the 1970s, they've been used on high-tech space craft as well as on roofs all around the world.

Welcome to the 21st century!
Ah, but, those are the old version of solar panel. If some pretty neat nanotechnology has its way, our solar panels will soon look and act nothing like their predecessors. In fact, the new solar panels could look more like a roll of film.

New design
The reason for the change is twofold: utility and economics. Mounting a large glass panel on your roof is expensive, time consuming, difficult, and a little dangerous. So, some brainy engineers who have been working on improving solar panels decided to do away with the glass and metal approach that we all know.

And, that leads to the economics. Metal, glass, even silicon wafers (the heart of the old school solar panels) are all expensive -- about $4 to $5 per watt of energy generated. However, if solar panels ever hope to compete with conventional electricity generation, they need to be much cheaper; the holy grail for power generation is about $1 per watt.

Pay attention to the miniscule
So, how do you generate electricity without any of the original solar panel parts? Turns out you do it using particles more than a hundred times smaller than a human hair.

Quantum dots are tiny particles that replace the silicon wafers as the seminconductor, capturing light and turning that into electrons. The advantage is that you can use far less seminconducting material to achieve the same result. This has led to the emerging production of solar panels that are flexible and tiny.

New business model
Several companies in the United States, including Nanosolar, Konarka, and Nanosys, are developing solar panels that are printed onto plastic sheets using roll-to-roll technology like the ones that produce your morning newspaper. These companies have attracted major attention and lots of funding from the U.S. Department of Energy and even Google.

Local sources
And, Canada has its own rising star of nanotech solar energy. Ted Sargent, Canadian Research Chair in Nanotechnology at the University of Toronto, is developing solar panels that can be painted onto almost anything, a wall, a roof, even a sweater.

Sargent's solar panels don't even rely on clear sunny days. Their panels are tuned to infrared light, which anything that is warm emits naturally. So, you can imagine putting on a solar panel sweater, and it gets electricity from your body heat to power your cell phone, even though it is a rainy day.

Nano relationships
But, keep in mind the revolution is just beginning. That means you may not be able to go out and buy a solar panel sweater or a solar panel that looks like film just yet.

It also means that scientists are constantly discovering new things. Recently researchers in Indiana at the University of Notre Dame found a way to improve the efficiency of these quantum dots when they hooked them up to another nanoparticle called carbon nanotubes. These carbon nanotubes acted like wires connecting the energy created at the quantum dots to an electrode where current is created.

So, stay tuned! The future of solar panels is here.