New Solar Cells Capture Sunlight on Cloudy Days

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A solar cell that doesn’t need direct sunlight might seem like a half-baked idea. But scientists have invented solar cells that–unlike today’s cells–don’t need to be installed on flat surfaces, and can even collect energy from indirect sunlight.

Imagine a house where solar cells are hidden behind walls and keep producing energy when it’s cloudy. Or a solar-powered car that charges while it’s parked with solar cells under its surface instead of on the roof.

These new cells, which are based on the same fiber-optic technology telecommunication companies use, would make it easier for designers to incorporate solar energy into everyday items.

The new cells modify fiber optics with nanotechnology and dyes that convert light to energy. As the light bounces around in the fiber, it interacts with the dyes that convert the light into electricity. Microscopic wires “grown” on the fiber transfer electricity to a substance that carries the current away.

Some major advantages of the new technology are that the cells are inexpensive to make, flexible, sturdy, and made with environmentally safe materials.

The new cells are less efficient than the flat solar cells that most people think of today, but the researchers say they aren’t meant to replace the flat panels.

“This is a different way to gather power from the sun. To meet our energy needs, we need all the approaches we can get,” said researcher Zhong Lin Wang of the Georgia Institute of Technology.

The researchers have already tested a 7.8-inch (20-centimeter) long cell, though Wang plans to make the cells larger to capture even more sunlight.

Wang and colleagues estimates their new cells could be available for widespread use in five years—if enough resources are devoted to developing the technology.

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Related articles:

–Check out the Green Guide’s energy-saving hub.

–Watch a video on new alternative energy sources.

Solar cell photograph by Gary Meek, Georgia Tech

Human Journey

Christine Dell'Amore, environment writer/editor for National Geographic News, has reported from six continents, including Antarctica. She has also written for Smithsonian magazine and the Washington Post. Christine holds a masters degree in journalism with a specialty in environmental reporting from the University of Colorado at Boulder. Her book, South Pole, was published in 2012.