You've probably heard of thin-film solar power, but scientists from Los Alamos and Brookhaven National Laboratories made new light-harvesting material that's actually transparent. Solar electricity from the whole house, anyone?
A team led by physical chemist Mircea Cotlet created a transparent thin film using a relatively simple process. As James Rickman of Los Alamos National Laboratory explained to me, it involved taking a standard polymer -- plastic -- and spiking it with soccer-ball shaped 60-carbon-atom spheres called fullerenes, better known as "buckyballs" after Buckminster Fuller. Their research was just published in the journal Chemistry of Materials.
While the material design isn't Earth-shattering, Rickman says the novelty is in the transparency.
"The way that these things line up, you get this honeycomb-shaped pattern that's like a screen from a screen door," he says. The transparent effect is caused when micron-sized water droplets are sprayed across a thin layer of the buckyball-plastic solution. The water and solution naturally create a concentration of semiconducting material in the pattern as the water evaporates.
The material could either be used as a solar collector, or as a light-emitting diode, depending on the application. Transparency is crucial because it would allow for flexible and transparent light displays, and solar collection from windows that still allow the light in.
Imagine a house that has solar collectors on the roof, and the windows. That could potentially generate far more electricity than a traditional solar array. Getting the material to that stage will take more years of research and testing, though, since the scientists are currently making droplet-sized quantities of it in the lab. Plus it would be great to use a renewable feedstock to make the plastic solution.
Still, Rickman points out that the process to make the material is fairly easy to develop and that should make it scalable. Scaling up solar simply and affordably -- the advantages are clear to me.
Images: Optical micrographs of the new material. Credit: Brookhaven and Los Alamos National Laboratories.