Windows That Generate Electricity?

Photo: BlackRockSolar/FlickrI can't be the only one who has not-so-secretly wondered, and dreamed, about the day when solar panels finally reach the pinnacle of design: a point when they are so efficient and so transparent that they can be used as windows, allowing an entire structure (or vehicle) to generate power for itself. It looks like that moment has finally arrived, thanks to the intrepid researchers at the Institute of Photonic Sciences.

Don't call your carpenter about replacing your windows right this second, though. The technology is still in development and needs considerably more research and refinement. What the recently-published research shows is that the dream is possible and definitely attainable, but it's not quite there yet. First, researchers need to come up with efficient production methods to bring costs down to a reliable level, and they need to make sure the technology has staying power and durability, two things that will require much more testing.

Here's the good news: Organic Photovoltaic (OP) cells are small and transparent, which makes them a significant departure from older solar technologies. This means they can be installed anywhere, including in locales where larger, clunkier solar panels wouldn't fit, like household appliances and, of course, in place of windows. Because they're transparent, people can still see through them, but those windows will be working double-time as energy generators.

Imagine a big row of picture windows, which might feel like an extravagance. That all changes when those windows are actually generating energy for the house, especially if they're paired with an innovative green energy solution like a large tile bench or patio to collect heat during the day and slowly release it at night, regulating the temperature of the house and reducing heating costs.

The cells aren't totally clear, because that radically degrades efficiency, but they're close to it, and the tint of the cells can actually be controlled during the design process to allow consumers some flexibility in installation and utilization. This could have the delightful side effect of cutting down on glare, a common problem with large arrays of windows, and creating more privacy for homes, offices, and other structures.

Plans are already underway to conduct more research into OP cells, with the goal of "improving their stability and lifetimes as well as obtaining the material needed to substantially raise their efficiency." If they prove as commercially viable as hoped, they could turn into a revolution for appliance manufacturers, architects, remodeling firms, and of course consumers who want access to affordable and discreet sources of alternative energy. No more garish arrays of solar panels on the roof!

Particularly in areas with lots of sun, like Israel and the American Southwest, emerging solar technologies are always a source of interest and excitement. These regions have strived to become solar leaders, focusing on research, development, and proof of concept. Luckily for consumers, electricians in these parts of the world are often very familiar with the latest and greatest solar technology, along with its advantages and disadvantages. While it's not time to call a Phoenix electrician about installing OP windows yet, that day may not be far off...

Katie Marks writes for

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