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Take a Look Through the Clear Solar Panel of the Future

Updated: Jan 9, 2021

Every week, Future Human’s Glimpse of the Future brings you an image of the science being deployed to solve the world’s pressing problems.

IfI asked you to picture solar panels, you’d likely imagine clunky blue or black rectangles arranged on a sloping rooftop or arrayed in neat rows over an open field. These panels hold plenty of promise for providing humans with clean, renewable energy, but they’re not exactly versatile. You can’t just stick huge black panels anywhere.

That’s why, for years, scientists have been trying to make these panels transparent. Doing so would turn a range of surfaces — car windows, skyscraper walls, even phone screens — into potential clean energy generators. They’ve already seen some success: In 2020, for example, researchers at the University of Michigan made a semitransparent panel with 8% power conversion efficiency — a new record. Efficiency remains an obstacle, as do durability, cost, and transparency.

Researchers in Korea, Vietnam, and India recently took a stab at the transparent solar cell problem, publishing their work this week in the Journal of Power Sources. Their cell achieved only 2.1% efficiency but allowed more than 57% of visible light through it, giving it a higher transparency than the University of Michigan panel, which allowed only about 50% of visible light.

Panels usually consist of a pane of glass covered with thin layers of semiconductors, compounds that capture light and turn it into electricity. Most use the semiconductors fluorine-doped tin oxide and indium-doped tin oxide, which aren’t particularly transparent. The new panel uses titanium dioxide and nickel oxide, which are known to have greater transparency. In the paper, the team points out that titanium dioxide is eco-friendly and nickel is abundant, increasing the potential of this technology to scale.

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