May 17, 2011

New Super Powered Solar Panel?

If you have solar panels on your home, you probably think you're the wave of the future. You're the envy of the block, the early adopter, the one who's got it all figured out. Think again, if the news coming out of the University of Missouri is to be believed. A chemical engineer there thinks he's come up with a solar technology that will be "orders of magnitude ahead" of the current solar cutting-edge.

The Missouri professor, Patrick Pinhero, says his design is better because it's less wasteful. Traditional photovoltaic (PV) solar panels aren't actually very good at harvesting the full range of the sunlight spectrum, nabbing only about 20% of available light. Pinhero has worked on a device that uses a thin sheet of tiny antennas tuned to "collect and utilize as much solar energy as is theoretically possible," he said in a release. With further tweaks to the tech, which can already be used to convert industrial heat into usable electricity, Pinhero thinks it can be used to collect energy not just from visible sunlight, but from the near-infrared region of the spectrum, too. He reckons his device can harvest 90%-95% of sunlight.

What does all this mean, on a practical level? Are the "old" forms of solar power now obsolete? Will clean tech become like the latest Apple gadget, where each of us is caught in an eternal cycle of waiting for a price drop on the old version, while being enticed by the just-announced new one? In clean tech, as in all tech, its seems like we may face the problem of premature obsolescence: We'll never be content with what we have, when something better is coming down the pike.

Not so fast, though. It's early yet. Pinhero's project still needs funding, though he's been knocking on the door of the Department of Energy and if he's truly almost quintupled the efficiency of solar panels, he'll surely get it. "Pinhero believes..." "Pinhero envisions..." are common phrases from the announcement. (We've reached out to him for an interview.) Even if all goes according to plan, the idea is to have, within five years, a technology that "complements conventional PV solar panels." Hopefully this technology isn't so much disruptive as cooperative; your solar panels will be able to merely get an update.

Pinhero may well be onto something ingenious, and a mob of analysts, researchers, and investors will help suss that out. But for the time being, it's not time yet to cast off your old-school solar panels and curse your short-sightedness.


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