solar power and solar cell

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Heliolisk gets its electric energy from solar power, by absorbing the suns energy through its frills like a solar panel.

Photovoltaic Cells are systems that use sunlight (”photons”) to generate energy (”volts”). To explain how this works, we have to understand what goes on at an atomic level. Any electric current is made from moving charges, typically electrons. Basically all atoms have electrons orbiting the nucleus in specific, quantized shells. If given enough energy, these electrons will jump up in shells or even leave the atom altogether.

A photovoltaic cell has several layers. In the first, sunlight hits and excites the electrons, giving them energy to let them jump up and out of the molecules.

But, if the electrons have nowhere to go, you won’t get any electricity out of it. Therefore a voltaic cell will have a second layer made of a different molecule, which is positively-charge and will attract the freed electrons (reffered to as a cathode.)

Suddenly, by absorbing sunlight you have moved your electrons between the layers of your cells. Hey, moving charges create electricity! That’s how solar panels work.

However, the mainstream solar power industry uses silicon crystal-based panels, a substance which is stiff, rigid, and definitely not what’s in Heliolisk’s frills.

Fortunately, a lot of research is being done in organic photovoltaics, which are carbon based, flexible, and would be reasonable for Heliolisk to have in his body.

Heliolisk can power a skyscraper with this energy. How much energy does a Skyscraper need? It obviously depends on the skyscraper, but around 2,500 kW at any one time. That’s pretty insane for Heliolisk. Especially considering our best solar panels can only capture about 12% of the energy that hits them.

Heliolisk’s frills are Carbon-based Photovoltaic Cells. Electrons absorb the energy from sunlight and are allowed to move, creating an electric current.

Printable solar cells just got a little closer

A U of T Engineering innovation could make printing solar cells as easy and inexpensive as printing a newspaper. Dr. Hairen Tan and his team have cleared a critical manufacturing hurdle in the development of a relatively new class of solar devices called perovskite solar cells. This alternative solar technology could lead to low-cost, printable solar panels capable of turning nearly any surface into a power generator.

“Economies of scale have greatly reduced the cost of silicon manufacturing,” said Professor Ted Sargent, an expert in emerging solar technologies and the Canada Research Chair in Nanotechnology. “Perovskite solar cells can enable us to use techniques already established in the printing industry to produce solar cells at very low cost. Potentially, perovskites and silicon cells can be married to improve efficiency further, but only with advances in low-temperature processes.”

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Solar Cell Self-Repairs Like a Plant

When leaves are damaged by intense ultraviolet light, they’re able to repair themselves, constantly producing new cells to replace the damaged ones. If only solar cells could do the same thing, they’d last a lifetime. Luckily, scientists have found a way to replicate that natural process using proteins, bacteria and water. These solar cells can’t compete with silicon cells just yet – it will take decades of research to improve them – but it’s an impressive start that could improve ‘artificial leaf’-type solar cells even further.

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Fully transparent solar cell could make every window in your house a power source
The first fully transparent solar cell harnesses wavelengths of light that are invisible to the human eye in order to generate power.

So, to achieve a truly transparent solar cell, the Michigan State team created this thing called a transparent luminescent solar concentrator (TLSC), which employs organic salts to absorb wavelengths of light that are already invisible to the human eye. Steering clear of the fundamental challenges of creating a transparent photovoltaic cell allowed the researchers to harness the power of infrared and ultraviolet light.

The TLSC projects a luminescent glow that contains a converted wavelength of infrared light which is also invisible to the human eye. More traditional (non-transparent) photovoltaic solar cells frame the panel of the main material, and it is these solar cells that transform the concentrated infrared light into electricity.

Could we get solar energy from bacteria?

Bio-solar panels, which use materials such as soil, plants and bacteria instead of the the metals and acids that are required for photovoltaic panels, just took a major step forward. Researchers from the Binghamton University, USA, have connected nine bio-solar cells into a panel and managed to continuously generate 5.59 microwatts of electricity. Until now, nobody has connected that many cells into a panel or generated that many microwatts. 

The nine biological-solar (bio-solar) cells connected into a bio-solar panel by the team from Binghamton University. Credit: Seokheun Choi

Seokheun Choi, co-author of the paper Biopower generation in a microfluidic bio-solar panel, which reported the findings, said, ‘Once a functional bio-solar panel becomes available, it could become a permanent power source for supplying long-term power for small, wireless telemetry systems as well as wireless sensors used at remote sites where frequent battery replacement is impractical’. 

While the amount of power generated is tiny relative to that of conventional solar panels, the findings could encourage further research into this potentially promising area. 

This approach uses cyanobacteria, a type of bacteria that gain their energy using photosynthesis, hence the ‘solar’ element of these panels. Because they don’t directly run on sunlight, in the manner of conventional solar panels, they could be appropriate for environments that can’t make use of traditional solar power.

Cultured cynobacteria, which can be found in almost every terrestrial and aquatic habitat on the planet, and which provided the energy for these bio-solar panels. Credit: Joydeep.

However, there remains a lot of work to be done before bio-solar panels can be a realistic prospect. Choi said that, ‘The metabolic pathways of cyanobacteria or algae are only partially understood, and their significantly low power density and low energy efficiency make them unsuitable for practical applications. There is a need for additional basic research to clarify bacterial metabolism and energy production potential for bio-solar applications.’

Solar System: 5 Things To Know This Week

Our solar system is huge, so let us break it down for you. Here are 5 things to know this week: 

1. You Call the Shots

This July, when the Juno mission arrives at Jupiter, it will eye the massive planet with JunoCam. What adds extra interest to this mission is that the public is invited to help Juno scientists choose which images JunoCam will take. Now is the time to get involved.

2. Dawn Delivers

We’ve seen several images now from the Dawn spacecraft’s new, close orbit around Ceres—and they don’t disappoint. Exquisitely detailed photos of the dwarf planet reveal craters, cliffs, fractures, canyons and bright spots in many locations. “Everywhere we look in these new low-altitude observations, we see amazing landforms that speak to the unique character of this most amazing world,” said the mission’s principal investigator.

3. Remembering the Visit to a Sideways World

Jan. 24 is the 30th anniversary of Voyager 2’s Uranus flyby. The seventh planet is notable for the extreme tilt of its axis, its lacy ring system and its large family of moons—10 of which were discovered thanks to Voyager’s close encounter. In fact, we learned much of what we know about the Uranian system during those few days in 1986.

4. A Decade in the Deep

The New Horizons spacecraft left Earth 10 years ago this week. Its long voyage into deep space is, even now, transforming our understanding of the outer solar system. New data and pictures from the Pluto flyby are still streaming down from the spacecraft. Pending the approval of an extended mission, New Horizons is en route to a 2019 rendezvous with a small, unexplored world in the distant Kuiper Belt.

5. Power at a Distance

Space exploration helped drive the development of practical solar cells, and now solar power has gone farther than ever before. Last week, NASA’s Juno spacecraft broke the record for the most distant solar-powered craft when it passed a distance of 493 million miles (793 million kilometers) from the sun. The four-ton Juno spacecraft draws energy from three 30-foot-long (9-meter) solar arrays festooned with 18,698 individual cells.

Want to learn more? Read our full list of the 10 things to know this week about the solar system HERE

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