A collaboration that includes a University of Missouri engineering professor is aiming to revolutionize how solar energy is collected and converted into electricity.
Tapping solar energy now relies on photovoltaic panels, but that technology can take advantage of only about one-third of the radiation spectrum in sunlight.
But the research group that includes MU is taking a different approach that uses 90 percent of the spectrum, by using tiny antennas in paper-thin film. The approach is still in development, but the group is far enough along in the work, which began in 2005, that its members are confident it will perform as expected and eventually be commercially successful.
"This isn't evolutionary, it's revolutionary," said Patrick Pinhero, an associate professor of chemical engineering at the University of Missouri in Columbia, Mo. "Ten years out I think we replace photovoltaics."
The collaboration making the effort includes the federal Idaho National Laboratory, where Pinhero once worked, and MicroContinuum Inc. of Cambridge, Mass., a company started by former Polaroid scientists and engineers that turn laboratory-scale technologies into devices that can be mass produced. Garrett Moddel, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Colorado, is providing expertise in the electronics needed to convert the solar radiation into electricity.
Besides solar energy, the technology could be used to collect waste energy in industrial plants. For example, the energy thrown off in the manufacturing of aluminum could be collected by the antenna film.
The approach relies on nanotechnology, which is the manipulation of material at the molecular level. Three square feet of the film contains 1.5 billion antennas. Pinhero said the film could be incorporated into roof shingles to collect solar energy or even custom made to power vehicles.
"If successful, this product will put us orders of magnitude ahead of the current solar energy technologies," he said.
The group is seeking funding from the U.S. Department of Energy and has lined up partners that will provide matching funds as the technology progresses to the prototype and commercial stages.
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