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‘Spectacles’ Achieve Record Solar Panel Output for Startup

Posted on June 14th, 2017 by in New Materials & Applications

Insolight Optical Array

Image by EPFL/Alain Herzog [crop of original] via EPFL

When it comes to photovoltaic cells – converting sunlight into electricity – size does matter. But by thinking functionally, a recent startup out of École polytechnique fĂ©dĂ©rale de Lausanne (EPFL) proves double the output is even achievable with smaller surface areas.

While sunlight is free and certainly clean as an energy source, mankind’s capacity to reliably satisfy our energy demands remains challenging. While much progress has been made in solar panel technology in recent years, their efficiency at converting solar irradiation into electricity remains low ranging from approximately 10% for thin film through 20% for polycrystalline panels. Panels with higher efficiency of up to 45% are available in the aerospace industry, but are cost prohibitive.

Focusing – no pun intended – on the solar irradiation part of the process, a startup company named Insolight found it could use lenses to concentrate the incoming light on smaller solar cells to achieve an efficiency of more than 36%. This effectively doubles the efficiency of the typically available commercial panels. Similar to technology found in reading glasses, the company uses a transparent, plastic optical system to directs the sun’s rays onto an array of very high performance photovoltaic cells. Another innovation is in the company’s patented microtracking system that moves the cell array only a matter of millimeters over the course of the day keeping it in optimal alignment with the sun. Using this method, the entire panel does not need to articulate making it far more efficient and cost effective to install on flat surfaces. See how it works in the following video:

Insolight’s fundamentally different and innovative approach is encouraging. Despite states and municipalities covering expansive acreage of land wherever possible, solar still represents a miniscule fraction of the energy we need to power our society. According to a report issued by the Institute of Energy Research (IER), solar energy only provides five-tenths of 1 percent of the total energy consumed in the United States as of 2016 and only accounts for 0.6% of net utility-scale electricity generated in the United States. We have a long way to go, but with the help of engineers and scientists thinking functionally and creatively, we may find that solar technology like computer processor technology progresses at a rate similar to Moore’s Law. Brace yourself!

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All opinions shared in this post are the author’s own.

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