Sun Plus Nanotechnology: Can solar energy grow by thinking small? (2023)

Nanotechnology can increase the efficiency of solar energy and reduce costs. Much recent research is aimed at better harvesting energy from the largest energy source on earth.

VonPatrick J. KigerFor National Geographic news

Posted on April 30, 2013

read 10 minutes

Nearly 60 years after researchers first demonstrated a way to convert sunlight into energy, science is still grappling with a critical limitation of the photovoltaic solar cell.

It's not that efficient at converting the enormous power of the sun into electricity.

And that despite the fact that commercial solar cells today have two to four times the efficiency of 6 percentone first introduced by Bell Laboratories in New Jersey in 1954, this was not enough to oust fossil fuels from their prominent place in the global energy mix.

But now alternative energy researchers believe that something really small, nanotechnology, the construction of structures just a fraction the width of a human hair, could give solar energy a huge boost. (See related proof: "What you don't know about solar energy.")

"Advances in nanotechnology will lead to greater efficiencies and lower costs, and that can and likely will be significant," said Matt Beard, senior scientist at the US Department of Energy.National Renewable Energy Laboratory(NREL). "In fact, nanotechnology is already having a dramatic impact on solar cell research."

Of course, the super-expensive solar panels used in NASA's space program are far more efficient than those mounted on rooftops. (See related article: "Beam It Down: An Attempt to Launch Space-Based Solar Energy.") And in the laboratory, the scientists achieved record efficiencies of over 40 percent. But such competitions show the gap between solar potential and today's mass market cells.

The energy output from the sun hitting the earth could provide as muchlike 10,000 times more energythan the combined output of all commercial power plants on the planet, according to the National Academy of Engineering. The problem is how to harvest this energy. Today's commercial solar cells, typically made of silicon, are still relatively expensive to manufacture (although prices have come down) and are often achievableonly capture 10 to 20 percent of the sunlightthat it achieves This contributes to the high cost of electricity from solar energy compared to electricity from conventional power plants that burn fossil fuels. Through a benchmark, the US Energy Information Administration has estimatedthe leveled cost of new photovoltaic solar energyIn 2012 they were around 56% higher than the production costs of a conventional coal-fired power plant.

Nanotechnology can provide an answer to the efficiency problem by fundamentally modifying solar cells to improve their ability to convert sunlight into energy and allow industry to use cheaper materials. If this were the case, it would fulfill the predictions of some of nanotechnology's pioneers, such as the late Nobel physicist Richard Smalley, who saw nanotechnology as a potential solution to the world's energy problems. (See related: "Nano's great future.") Scientists point out that there is still much work to be done to overcome the technical challenges and make these inventions prime-time ready. For example, more research is needed on the environmental, health and safety aspects of nanomaterials, said the Academy to National Sciencein a 2012 report that took a broad look at nanotechnology, especially not in solar applications. (See related images: "Seven ingredients for better car batteries.")

But Luke Henley, a professor of chemistry at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who won a 2012 National Science Foundation grant to develop a nanotechnology project related to solar energy, predicts there will be big strides in the next five to 10 years . "It's potentially a game changer," he says. Here are five fascinating innovations in nanotechnology that could help boost solar energy.

Billions of little holes

To reduce the amount of sunlight reflected and wasted by silicon solar cells, manufacturers often add one or more layers of anti-reflective material, adding significantly to the cost. But late last year, NREL scientists announced a breakthrough in using nanotechnology to reduce the amount of light reflected off silicon cells. In a liquid process, billions of nanometer-sized holes are made in every square centimeter of the surface of a solar cell. Because the holes are smaller than the wavelengths of the light that strikes them, light is absorbed rather than reflected. the new thingswhich is called "black silicon"., is nearly 20% more efficient than existing silicon cell designs. (See related photos: "Spanish solar energy.")

The "nano sandwich"

Organic solar cells, made from elements found in living things such as carbon, nitrogen and oxygen, would be cheaper and easier to manufacture than current silicon-based solar cells. The downside so far is that they haven't been that efficient. However, a Princeton University research team led by electrical engineer Stephen Chou managed to nearly triple the efficiency of solar cells through the designa nanostructured "sandwich" of metal and plastic. In technical jargon, his invention is called the Sub-Wavelength Hole Array Plasmodic Cavity, or PlaSCH for short. It consists of a thin strip of plastic sandwiched between a top layer of incredibly fine metal mesh and a bottom layer of the metal foil used in conventional solar cells.

Every aspect of a solar cell's structure, from its thickness to mesh spacing to hole diameters, is smaller than the wavelength of the light it collects. As a result, the device absorbs most of the light at that frequency instead of reflecting it. "It's like a black hole for light," Chou explained in a Princeton press release in December. "That gets him." Another bonus: The researchers say that PlaSCH cells can be cheaply made into plates using a process developed by Chou years ago that etches the nanostructures over a large area, much like newspapers are printed.

mimic evolution

One of the major difficulties in making solar cells more energy efficient is the limits of the researchers' imagination. ButIn a January 2013 article published in Scientific Reports,Northwestern University mechanical engineering professors Wei Chen and Cheng Sun and their graduate students Shuangcheng Yu and Chen Wang have presented a method that could be superior to human brainstorming. Using a mathematical search algorithm based on natural biological evolution, they took dozens of design elements and "combined" them in a 20-generation series, in a process that mimicked the evolutionary principles of breeding and genetic mutation.

"Our approach is based on the biological evolutionary process of survival of the fittest," explains an article on Northwestern University's website.

The result: an evolution-inspired organic solar cell, one that uses carbon-based materials instead of silicon crystals, in which the light first enters a 100-nanometer-thick scattering layer with a faint geometric pattern. The researchers say this should allow it to absorb light more efficiently. The US Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory will produce a real working version of the new cell for testing purposes.

tiny antennas

We're used to thinking of solar energy as something we collect with panels. But even the most modern silicon panels can only receive light in a relatively narrow frequency range, which accounts for about 20% of the energy available in the sun's rays. Panels require separate equipment to convert stored energy into usable electricity. But researchers at the University of Connecticut and Penn State are working on an entirely new approach that would use small, nanoscale antenna arrays that support a wider frequency range and would harvest about 70% of the energy available in sunlight. In addition, the antenna arrays could convert this energy into direct current without additional equipment.

Scientists have been considering using tiny antennas for some time, but so far they lack the technology to make them work, as such a configuration would require electrodes that are just a nanometer or two apart, about 1/30,000 of the width of a human. Hair. Luckily, Brian Willis, an engineering professor at the University of Connecticut, developed a fabrication technique called face-selective atomic layer deposition that makes it possible to coat electrodes with layers of individual copper atoms until they're just 1.5 inches apart. "This new technology can help us overcome barriers and make solar power cost competitive with fossil fuels."Willis explained in February. "It's a whole new technology, a whole new way of thinking."

Painting solar panels

Regardless of what type of solar energy harvesting technology you use, there's still the problem of building a bunch of devices and plugging them into sun-exposed locations. But University of Southern California chemistry professor Richard L. Brutchey and postdoctoral fellow David H. Webber have developed technology that can turn a building into a solar panel.

They made a stable, electrically conductive liquid filled with sun-harvesting nanocrystals that can be painted or printed like an ink on surfaces such as window glass or plastic ceiling tiles. The nanocrystals, which are made of cadmium selenide instead of silicon, are about four nanometers in size (about 250 billion of them would fit on the head of a pin), so they can float in a liquid solution. (See related images: "A new center for solar technology is being built in Japan.")

Brutchey and Webber's secret to making technology work? Look for an organic molecule that could attach to the nanocrystals and stabilize them and prevent them from sticking together without affecting their ability to conduct electricity.

The researchers intend to work on nanocrystals composed of materials other than cadmium, a toxic metal. "Although the commercialization of this technology is still years away, we see a clear path to integrate it into the next generation of solar cell technologies," says Brutchey. (See related video: "Toxic earth generates solar energy.")

This story is part of aspecial seriesdealing with energy issues. To learn more, visitThe big energy challenge.

An earlier version of this story involved Cheng Sun as a graduate student. He is an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Northwestern.


How does nanotechnology improve solar panels? ›

The application of nanotechnology in solar cells industry

Boost absorption and retention of sunlight. Providing modern nanotechnology designs for solar cells. Using nanowires to boost solar cell efficiency.

What is the disadvantage of nanotechnology in solar panels? ›

They do have some disadvantages, however, including an efficiency of just 13 to 16% and they also have lower space efficiency. Figure 1: The market for solar panels is expected to grow at CAGR of around 17% between 2017-2024.

Will nanotechnology make solar power more economical? ›

Nanotechnology may provide an answer to the efficiency problem, by tinkering with solar power cells at a fundamental level to boost their ability to convert sunlight into power, and by freeing the industry to use less expensive materials.

Is solar expected to grow? ›

Solar PV Growth Forecast

The Inflation Reduction Act is expected to bring about unprecedented growth in the industry. Over the next five years, the industry is expected to install 200 GW of new solar capacity, more capacity than has been installed to date.

What are the negative effects of nanotechnology? ›

Negative Impact

If nanoparticles have poor solubility they can cause cancer. This is because the nanoparticles have a greater surface area to volume ratio which increases the chemical and biological reactivity.

How efficient is nanotechnology solar panel? ›

Nanotech posted the technical specification of their panels - actually stating that the cell efficiency is 96.9% and the module efficiency is 94.7%.

What are the risks of nanotechnology? ›

Materials which by themselves are not very harmful could be toxic if they are inhaled in the form of nanoparticles. The effects of inhaled nanoparticles in the body may include lung inflammation and heart problems.

What are the disadvantages of nanotechnology in future? ›

Disadvantages of Nanotechnology
  • Negative Environmental Impact. ...
  • Decreased in Employment. ...
  • Economic Imbalance. ...
  • Health Problems. ...
  • Weapons that are Dangerous and Easily Accessible. ...
  • Costly. ...
  • Negative Effects on People's Health. ...
  • Practical Problems.

What is the future of nanotechnology in energy? ›

Nanotechnology provides solutions to the most important problems of renewable energy systems. The low efficiency of renewable energy systems can be improved through the use of nanomaterials. Moreover, the reduced size of energy systems would allow the production of lighter and portable devices.

How much longer will the solar system last? ›

After 25 years, solar panels will lose their original efficiency and drop in power production. Although 25 years is the average life expectancy of panels, they could still continue to function. However, their gradual degradation would continue to impact your power production and lower your energy savings.

What is the cheapest renewable energy source in the world? ›

According to the IEA's World Energy Outlook and other research projects, solar and wind energy have continued to occupy the top spots in terms of the cheapest renewable energy sources. Both energy sources cost significantly less than fossil fuel alternatives and continue to become more affordable every year.

Is solar still a good investment? ›

In most cases, installing residential solar panels is worth it. Solar panels typically last 25 years or more and can dramatically reduce or even eliminate your electricity bills — you can save an average of $1,346 annually on energy bills by going solar. Solar is a large upfront investment.

How do you get rid of nanoparticles in your body? ›

Even insoluble nanoparticles which reach the finely branched alveoli in the lungs can be removed by macrophage cells engulfing them and carrying them out to the mucus, but only 20 to 30 per cent of them are cleared in this way. Nanoparticles in the blood can also be filtered out by the kidneys and excreted in urine.

How do you know if you have nanobots? ›

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) devices could also be employed to track the position of nanobots, and early experiments with MRIs have demonstrated that the technology can be used to detect and even maneuver nanobots.

How long do nanoparticles stay in the body? ›

The blood half-lives of the various iron oxide nanoparticles currently in clinical use vary from 1 h to 24-36 h [69]. However, specific biodistribution and clearance parameters depend on particle properties such as surface characteristics, shape, and size [71].

Why aren't solar panels 100% efficient? ›

Why aren't solar panels 100% efficient? Solar panels don't convert sunlight into electricity with perfect efficiency because they can't absorb energy from the entire solar spectrum. There are certain wavelengths of light that solar panels can't process, so they're reflected off the solar panels or lost altogether.

What is the most efficient solar panel future? ›

Monocrystalline (mono) panels offer the highest efficiency rates and power output. Although they have the highest price tag, their long-term benefits are worth the investment. Mono panels are more compact, making them ideal for homes with limited roof space.

What is the most efficient solar panel ever made? ›

Monocrystalline solar panels are the most efficient type of panel compared to polycrystalline and thin-film options. Monocrystalline solar panels deliver between 15% to 22% efficiency.

Is nanotechnology a threat to humans? ›

Nanoparticles can get into the body through the skin, lungs and digestive system. This may help create 'free radicals' which can cause cell damage and damage to the DNA. There is also concern that once nanoparticles are in the bloodstream they will be able to cross the blood-brain barrier.

Why are people worried about nanotechnology? ›

The fact that there are many different types of nanomaterials means there is the potential for a wide range of effects. Some experiments have shown that they could have harmful effects on invertebrates and fish, including changes to their behaviour, development and reproduction.

How nanotechnology affect human life? ›

Major benefits of nanotechnology include improved manufacturing methods, water purification systems, energy systems, physical enhancement, nanomedicine, better food production methods, nutrition and large-scale infrastructure auto-fabrication.

How much battery does it take to go off the grid? ›

Generally, we would recommend a minimum of two days of storage capacity. Looking at my example, that would be about 17.25kWh. Considering how close we are, I would probably push that up to 20kWh of storage, however, you're probably going to be bound by what increments your preferred battery comes in.

Are solar panels worse than fossil fuels? ›

Solar energy is compared to fossil fuels. The greatest environmental impact is achieved by solar energy. Reliable applications are better for natural gas and coal. The effectiveness of solar panels can be between 15% to 20%, whereas coal could reach 40% efficiency and natural gas can reach 60 percent efficiency.

Is going solar better than electric? ›

Although solar equipment can be more expensive initially, the main reason that people choose solar power instead of electricity is the cost savings. Solar energy is very efficient and able to pay back the cost of installation over a number of years.

What is the future of the world with nanotechnology? ›

In the future, nanotechnology could also enable objects to harvest energy from their environment. New nano-materials and concepts are currently being developed that show potential for producing energy from movement, light, variations in temperature, glucose and other sources with high conversion efficiency.

What are the four 4 benefits and concerns of using nanotechnology? ›

Nanotechnology offers the potential for new and faster kinds of computers, more efficient power sources and life-saving medical treatments. Potential disadvantages include economic disruption and possible threats to security, privacy, health and the environment.

What is nanotechnology in real life? ›

The average person already encounters nanotechnology in a range of everyday consumer products – nanoparticles of silver are used to deliver antimicrobial properties in hand washes, bandages, and socks, and zinc or titanium nanoparticles are the active UV-protective elements in modern sunscreens.

How many years is nanotechnology? ›

B Tech Nanotechnology course duration is for four years, which includes eight semesters. Each semester has different subjects.

Will nanotechnology help to provide renewable power like solar energy? ›

Solar cells convert sunlight into electricity, but they face several challenges such as low efficiency, high cost, and environmental impact. Nanotechnology can help overcome these issues by creating new materials and structures that can absorb more light, generate more current, and reduce waste.

Can nanotechnology regenerate? ›

Nanotechnology is a powerful strategy in tissue regeneration for recreating the nanoscale features of tissues that can direct cellular adhesion, migration, and differentiation.

How many years would it take to get to another solar system? ›

The distance light travels in one year is about 5.9 trillion miles. Even if we had the technology to travel at the speed of light, it would take more than four years to get to Alpha Centauri.

What happens after 25 years of solar? ›

The good news is that most residential solar panels should operate for 25 years before degradation (or reduced energy production) is noticeable. Even after that point, solar panels can continue to convert sunlight into solar energy—just at a less efficient rate than when they were new.

Could Earth ever leave our solar system? ›

"It's very unlikely," Matteo Ceriotti, an aerospace engineer and space systems engineering lecturer at the University of Glasgow in the U.K., told Live Science in an email. However, as Ceriotti explained, "unlikely" does not mean it's "impossible," and suggested a way it could theoretically be done.

Which country is almost 100% run on renewable energy? ›

Norway obtains nearly all of its electricity from renewable sources (97 percent from hydropower).

Which country gets 99% of its energy from renewable sources? ›

Costa Rica gets 99 percent of its energy from renewable sources.

Which country gets 95% of its energy from renewable sources? ›

This has helped increase the country's output immediately. These projects are all developed by the Uruguayan Energy Policies of 2005-2030. Uruguay is notable for its use of renewable energies, which provide over 94.5% of the country's electricity and 55% of the country's total energy mix.

Will solar ever get cheaper? ›

The good news? Solar costs are very likely to decrease in 2023, making rooftop renewables affordable for more homeowners. In November 2022, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) published its analysis of the cost of solar and energy storage (battery) system installations for the first quarter of 2022.

Will solar pay for itself? ›

Solar panels typically pay for themselves within nine to 12 years. Solar panels reduce or eliminate the cost of electric utility bills. Utilities may pay solar panel users through a process called net metering.

Will solar prices drop in 2023? ›

In 2023, solar panels in the U.S. cost about $20,650 on average down from more than $50,000 10 years ago. In this article, we'll break down the cost of solar by system size, state, and panel brand, all of which can significantly impact the final number you pay.

How are solar panels being improved? ›

The latest developments and breakthroughs in solar technology include longer-lasting solar cells, solar cells that you can print onto flexible surfaces, solar panels that track the sun from east to west throughout the day, and solar power plants that work at night.

What technology will make solar panels more efficient? ›

Emerging technologies include pyramidal lenses, developed by researchers at Stanford University, which promise to concentrate the amount of light that hits a solar cell—getting the same amount of light to hit an area a third of the size—a breakthrough that could make solar panels more efficient in indirect light ...

How can nanotechnology improve energy? ›

Energy Storage: Nanotechnology is used to develop better batteries, such as lithium-ion batteries, with improved energy density, charge and discharge efficiency, and cycle life. Fuel Cells: Nanotechnology is used to develop more durable and efficient fuel cells, which can convert hydrogen fuel into electricity.

How fast is solar technology improving? ›

Due to the many advances in photovoltaic technology over recent years, the average panel conversion efficiency has increased from 15% to well over 22%.

What is the future technology for solar panels? ›

Some of the most promising developments in solar technology include the use of nanomaterials to increase the efficiency of solar cells, the development of transparent solar panels that can be integrated into windows and other building materials, and the use of artificial intelligence to optimize the performance of ...

Will solar panels ever be efficient? ›

Previously, the average efficiency of solar panels was around 15%, but thanks to advancements in photovoltaic technology, the efficiency of solar panels is currently between 15% and 22%. High-efficiency solar panels can even reach nearly 23%.

What is an example of nanotechnology being used today? ›

Nano-engineered materials make superior household products such as degreasers and stain removers; environmental sensors, air purifiers, and filters; antibacterial cleansers; and specialized paints and sealing products, such a self-cleaning house paints that resist dirt and marks.

What is the new technology for solar panels in 2023? ›

Expansion of off-grid solar: Off-grid solar, which provides electricity to communities and individuals that are not connected to the grid, is expected to continue to grow in 2023. Off-grid solar can help to bring electricity to remote or rural areas and support economic growth and development.

What is the newest technology in solar? ›

Perovskite: new type of solar technology paves the way for abundant, cheap and printable cells.

What is better than solar technology? ›

Wind is a more efficient power source than solar. Compared to solar panels, wind turbines release less CO2 to the atmosphere, consume less energy, and produce more energy overall.

What are 3 positive impacts of nanotechnology? ›

Major benefits of nanotechnology include improved manufacturing methods, water purification systems, energy systems, physical enhancement, nanomedicine, better food production methods, nutrition and large-scale infrastructure auto-fabrication.

How is nanotechnology used in solar cells? ›

The process developed was found to be viable for improving solar cell performance. Nanotechnology based solar cells can provide very high energy conversion efficiency and is considered to be a serious candidate for future PV technology.

What impact will nanotechnology have on the world? ›

Nanotechnologies may provide new solutions for the millions of people in developing countries who lack access to basic services, such as safe water, reliable energy, health care, and education.


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