There could be a revolution in solar panels coming, if new technology can be made cheaper and more widely available.
Researchers at Soochow University in China have come up with an innovative solution to help boost solar panel adoption in countries where you can’t always guarantee sunshine - to include technology that allows the panels to generate energy from rain.
They have been exploring how to include a triboelectric nanogenerator - or TENG - in solar panels. What these devices do is capture energy from the movement of two materials rubbing together - in this case a raindrop falling onto and then rolling down the panel - and turn that into electricity.
Other attempts have been made to include TENGs in solar panels, but until now it’s been hard to do so without making the panels too heavy and bulky.
However, the researchers in China appear to have found a way around this by using polymers to form a layer between the TENG and the solar cells used in a traditional solar panel. This polymer layer is textured, and acts as an electrode for the TENG and the solar cells.
The TENG and polymer layers are both transparent, which means that the solar cells underneath are still able to function when it’s sunny, although their efficiency is diminished by the introduction of the new layers above.
Speaking to the Guardian, Baoquan Sun, who has been involved in the research, explained that the device they’ve developed “can always generate electricity in any daytime weather”. Sun added that the device can also generate power overnight if it rains.
While the technology is still in its early stages and likely to be a few years away from commercialisation, Sun said that the team is also looking at other applications.
“In future, we are exploring integrating these into mobile and flexible devices, such as electronic clothes. However, the output power efficiency needs to be further improved before practical application,” Sun explained.
It’s expected to take three to five years to produce a prototype product, while other researchers in China have been experimenting with using TENGs on solar panels to make use of wind energy as well as that provided by the sun.
The findings of the team from Soochow University were originally published in the journal ACS Nano.
Uptake of solar power has been improving recently as the cost of solar PV installations has continued to become more affordable.
In the UK, 2017 was a record-breaking year for renewable energy, with solar and wind power doing particularly well. One of the milestones achieved was the most electricity produced by solar power in one moment, as well as the UK’s first day without any coal power since the Industrial Revolution.
As more and more people and businesses embrace renewable technology, the cost continues to fall and the benefits they deliver grows. Many in the industry have been urging the government to introduce incentives to boost the uptake of solar installations and help reduce the UK’s reliance on gas, as well as coal, as a fuel source.