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Michigan researchers develop transparent solar powered windows

A team of researchers at Michigan State University have just developed the world’s first fully transparent solar window. Is this the beginning of a more self-sufficient future for modern cities?

Imagine a future where the light shining in through our windows actively powers our bulbs when the sun goes down. That’s no longer an entirely unrealistic prospect.

Now, we’re fully aware that windows have technically been integrated with solar technology before – a Filipino based student called Carvey Ehren Maigue won the James Dyson sustainability award in 2020, for his translucent panels comprised of rotting vegetables and special resin.

This is, however, the first instance in which an entirely transparent alternative to silicon (with no tint) has been successfully engineered. When talking marketability, that’s obviously a huge coup.

If you check Google shopping now, you’ll see a few iterations of solar windows already on the market. But, crucially, these are semi-transparent and the clear lines separating strips of solar material within the glass can be seen at close range.

The exciting new material, developed by researchers at Michigan State University, utilises solar cells made from a clear dye-like compound. These are connected to lines of metal so thin that they’re invisible to the human eye.

The first prototype you can see at the top of the page is just small enough to be held by a human hand, but its savvy inventors assure that their process can be scaled up in a factory setting to create fully functional window panes larger than 2 square metres.

With the aesthetic problems seemingly solved, if photovoltaic windows arrived on the market at a competitive price, companies would definitely take an interest in installing them. An increasing number of modern skyscrapers already utilise solar panels on their rooftops, after all.

Besides, Stephen Forrest, an electrical engineer and co-author of the study, previously claimed that each installed window would pay for itself in just two to six years. Speaking in terms of a big corporate business, that’s nothing.

If you’re looking for drawbacks, you could say that they aren’t quite as adept at converting UVs to electricity as silicon panels. Each window has a productivity of 7% – though the team believe that 10% is very attainable with some tweaks – compared to the 15% possible with most silicon-based devices.

As the developers state, however, the motivation to create solar powered windows was never to compete with silicon models. When it comes to pushing for green energy, we need all the help we can get and necessity is the mother of invention.

‘You see a lot of these glass and steel buildings around which are just walls of windows,’ Forrest says. ‘Why not turn that excess energy [from sunlight] into electricity to help power the home or the building?’

The university is now seeking a patent on the tech and is looking for partners to take the next step in scaling up, and before long, selling the windows.

If you hadn’t gathered already, this is a seriously exciting development. If researchers can prove to prospective buyers and partners that they will quickly see return on their investment, as the study suggests, we could see the technology roll out fairly quickly.

Just imagine, Times Square or Piccadilly Circus up and running at normal capacity on energy harnessed perpetually from the sun.

And why not? ‘What does a greenhouse consist of?’ Forrest asks cannily.

 

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