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You Might Not be Able to See the Next Generation of Solar Panels

MSU's translucent solar panel.

Here at Energy Digital, we talk a lot about the future of the solar industry.

As of late, though, there’s been quite a bit of talk about the future solar panels themselves. What will they look like? How efficient will they be? What will they cost?

What if you couldn’t see them?

Scientists at Michigan State University have created a solar panel that’s completely transparent, essentially looking like a pane of glass. Efforts to create similar panels have been explored before, but to lesser degrees of success. The plastic was colored, similar to stained glass, and highly inefficient. The coloration also limited the usability of the plastic panels.

“No one wants to sit behind colored glass,” Richard Lunt, an assistant professor of chemical engineering and materials science, said. “It makes for a very colorful environment, like working in a disco. We take an approach where we actually make the luminescent active layer itself transparent.”

The system uses small organic molecules that absorb specific non-visible wavelengths of sunlight.

“We can tune these materials to pick up just the ultraviolet and the near infrared wavelengths that then ‘glow’ at another wavelength in the infrared,” Lunt said. “Because the materials do not absorb or emit light in the visible spectrum, they look exceptionally transparent to the human eye.”

The new material opens up a host of new possibilities for solar panels, allowing them to be better integrated and more prevalent.

“It opens a lot of area to deploy solar energy in a non-intrusive way,” Lunt said. “It can be used on tall buildings with lots of windows or any kind of mobile device that demands high aesthetic quality like a phone or e-reader. Ultimately we want to make solar harvesting surfaces that you do not even know are there.”

The team is currently working on improving the efficiency of the panels. 

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