for National Geographic News
Scientists have invented a plastic solar cell that can turn the sun's power into electrical energy, even on a cloudy day.
The plastic material uses nanotechnology and contains the first solar cells able to harness the sun's invisible, infrared rays. The breakthrough has led theorists to predict that plastic solar cells could one day become five times more efficient than current solar cell technology.
Like paint, the composite can be sprayed onto other materials and used as portable electricity. A sweater coated in the material could power a cell phone or other wireless devices. A hydrogen-powered car painted with the film could potentially convert enough energy into electricity to continually recharge the car's battery.
The researchers envision that one day "solar farms" consisting of the plastic material could be rolled across deserts to generate enough clean energy to supply the entire planet's power needs.
"The sun that reaches the Earth's surface delivers 10,000 times more energy than we consume," said Ted Sargent, an electrical and computer engineering professor at the University of Toronto. Sargent is one of the inventors of the new plastic material.
"If we could cover 0.1 percent of the Earth's surface with [very efficient] large-area solar cells," he said, "we could in principle replace all of our energy habits with a source of power which is clean and renewable."
Plastic solar cells are not new. But existing materials are only able to harness the sun's visible light. While half of the sun's power lies in the visible spectrum, the other half lies in the infrared spectrum.
The new material is the first plastic composite that is able to harness the infrared portion.
"Everything that's warm gives off some heat. Even people and animals give off heat," Sargent said. "So there actually is some power remaining in the infrared [spectrum], even when it appears to us to be dark outside."
The researchers combined specially designed nano particles called quantum dots with a polymer to make the plastic that can detect energy in the infrared.
With further advances, the new plastic "could allow up to 30 percent of the sun's radiant energy to be harnessed, compared to 6 percent in today's best plastic solar cells," said Peter Peumans, a Stanford University electrical engineering professor, who studied the work.
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