Pow! Bam! Zowie! MIT Breakthroughs in Clean Technology!
The first development, made public about two weeks ago, involves turning windows into solar concentrators that can help power the buildings in which they are located. Light is collected from across the window and then gathered at the edges by solar cells. MIT engineers report that focusing the light in this way increases the electrical power generated by each cell "by a factor of over 40."
Wow. How do they do it? The research team, headed up by associate professor of electrical engineering Dr. Marc Baldo, has come up with an ingenious method of concentrating solar energy by applying a blend of two or more dyes to the pane of glass. The dyes combine to absorb light across many different wavelengths, sending it at a new wavelength across the window pane to solar cells at the edges.
And, as if that's not amazing enough, this system can be installed on existing solar panel systems to increase their efficiency by 50% at "minimal additional cost."
The MIT team is looking to bring this innovation to market within three years. If successful, it would obviously have a dramatic impact on the cost of solar electricity.
The second breakthrough made headlines today in the Boston Globe. The primary obstacle to solar power becoming mainstream has been finding a way to store it economically for the days when the sun doesn't show up for work. Until now, doing so has been both inefficient and costly.
Well, it looks like those days might be gone with the wind, so to speak. In the August 1st issue of Science, another MIT team describes a simple, inexpensive, and very efficient method for storing solar energy that uses natural materials and is inspired by the process of photosynthesis.
"Solar power has always been a limited, far-off solution," observes Dr. Daniel Nocera, he Henry Dreyfus Professor of Energy at MIT and senior author of the paper. "Now we can seriously think about solar power as unlimited and soon."
Holy atomic pile, Batman! We might have a way to produce solar energy and store it cost effectively? And we might be able to use this same fuel cell to store wind energy more affordably? Whoa. Does this mean that Al Gore's call for all electricity in the U.S. to be produced by clean technology in ten years, so gleefully pilloried by the coal and oil industry and their supporters, might actually be achievable?
Nocera and his research collaborator, Dr. Matthew Kanan, have developed a low tech process to use the sun's (or wind's) energy for splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen gases. The oxygen and hydrogen can then be recombined inside a fuel cell, producing carbon-free electricity to power your house or electric car 24/7.
You can learn more about the details of this process on the MIT web site. Suffice it to say here that this new technique reproduces the water splitting reaction that takes place during photosynthesis, operating at room temperature and in neutral pH water in an easily assembled system.
According to Dr. James Barber, the Ernst Chain Professor of Biochemistry at Imperial College London, "This is a major discovery with enormous implications for the future prosperity of humankind." If Nocera and Kanan can pull this off, it'll not only have the anti-Gore climate skeptics gnawing on their paws, it'll also drive the paleo-greens up a tree.
Here's to a bright green future where instead of wearing hair shirts and a crown of thorns, in Alex Steffen's words, we can build a world "in which technology, design, smart incentives, and wise policies make it possible to deliver a high quality of life at lower ecological cost."