[Image above] Solar panels on a building roof. Credit: Abi Skipp; Flickr CC BY 2.0

The solar power revolution continues…

Commercialized solar energy use in the U.S. spiked 33% in 2014, thanks to soaring solar industry expansion.

That’s because there’s a tremendous amount of solar energy radiating from the sun each day. But that energy needs to be captured and efficiently stored if it’s ever going to be our go-to energy source over fossil fuels.

Despite the rapid growth in solar energy use in the U.S., it’s still pretty rare to see solar panels on rooftops—especially on residential buildings. That’s because solar panels can be pricey, and, often, homeowners don’t see the money back on their investment for a while.

As a result, we’ve lately seen more trends in solar fuel cell solutions. But scaling up that technology is still in the experimental phases. Recently, we covered research from Eindhoven University of Technology and the Foundation for Fundamental Research on Matter in the Netherlands, where scientists have developed a prototype of a solar cell that generates fuel instead of electricity.

Now there might be a new solution in the works for improving the efficiency of current solar cell technology.

Researchers from the University of Connecticut report the “development of a unique, ‘green’ antenna that could potentially double the efficiencies of certain kinds of solar cells and make them more affordable,” according to a news release from the American Chemical Society. The team presented their work at the National Meeting & Exposition of ACS on Aug. 18.

The antenna isn’t like your average radio antenna—instead of collecting radio waves, it harvests photons. It’s a “thin, pinkish film that can be coated on top of a solar cell” that involves simple chemistry that’s cost-efficient to produce, the release explains. 

The coating is a hydrogel composed of 95% water and containing dye-loaded bovine serum albumin (a serum protein from cows that’s commonly used as a protein standard in lab experiments) and fatty acids from coconuts.

So on top of being a simple, relatively inexpensive solution, the antenna is eco-friendly, too, as it’s made with biological and non-toxic materials that “should be compostable so they won’t accumulate in the environment,” Challa V. Kumar, chemistry professor at the University of Connecticut, says in the release.

But the real magic is how the antenna can boost the power output from solar cells.

“Most of the light from the sun is emitted over a very broad window of wavelengths,” Kumar says. “If you want to use solar energy to produce electric current, you want to harvest as much of that spectrum as possible.”

The silicon solar cells currently sold on the market “aren’t very efficient in the blue part of the light spectrum,” the release points out. Kumar and his team say the antenna they built “collects those unused blue photons and then converts them to lower energy photons that the silicon can then turn into current.”

Higher-end commercial solar panels sold today can reach up to 25% efficiency, but the cost is usually too steep to be economically feasible for the average customer. Current lab prototypes “can reach even higher efficiencies, but the technology is difficult to scale up,” according to the release. Kumar’s team thinks its antenna can help boost efficiencies of lower power and cheaper solar cells, making them comparable to more expensive options. 

“Many groups around the world are working hard to make this kind of antenna, and ours is the first of its kind in the whole world,” Kumar says in the release.

The team says it’s working with a Connecticut company on application methods for the antenna, so we may see this technology hit the market in the not-too-distant and oh-so-bright future.

Watch the video below to hear more about the work from Kumar during a press conference at the ACS meeting.

Credit: American Chemical Society; YouTube