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Transparent solar panel technology could transform more surfaces into solar panels

skyscrapers with windows

Imagine the potential of transparent solar panels! Picture office building windows, car windshields, and even plant greenhouses generating energy from the sun without blocking the view.

At King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia, researchers are developing more efficient semi-transparent panels using novel organic materials. Typically, organic solar cells use a bulk heterojunction made of two different materials as electron donor and acceptor layers to convert sunlight into electricity. However, these cells aren’t transparent.

Lead researcher Derya Baran and postdoc Anirudh Sharma are testing organic non-fullerene acceptor (NFA) molecules in these layers and have achieved impressive efficiencies nearing 20%. Surprisingly, they found that when testing these NFAs in a single-component film, a charge was generated even without the donor material. These thermally stable organic photovoltaics absorb near-infrared light, making them more visibly transparent.

"This challenges our understanding of how these devices operate," Sharma noted. While the NFA alone wasn’t efficient, adding a lower percentage of donor material improved performance, creating solar cells that are partially see-through but still convert sunlight to electricity. The goal is to balance transparency and efficiency to expand solar panel applications.

This is great news for green energy advocates. In 2023, utility-scale electricity generation reached about 4.18 trillion kilowatt-hours, with 21% from renewables like solar, wind, and hydropower. An additional 73.62 billion kilowatt-hours came from small-scale solar photovoltaics. To maximize solar power, expanding energy storage infrastructure globally is crucial.

Solar panels generate electricity without producing carbon dioxide, reducing air pollution and having a smaller carbon footprint than fossil fuels, which minimizes environmental disruption. The researchers have achieved 5.3% solar efficiency while allowing 82% of visible light through, marking high transparency for the modules. They’re now exploring new molecules to further increase efficiency and transparency. This innovative research could pave the way for more transparent solar solutions, transforming everyday surfaces into clean energy sources.

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