Transparent solar cells are here, but they won't see the light of day for years

Imagine a world where every pane of glass on the planet – from the screen on your smartphone to the windows on your house – was a solar panel capable of capturing energy. And not those blacked-out photovoltaic cells, either; we’re talking fully-transparent, crystal clear solar panels that look just like a piece of glass. It sounds like the stuff of science fiction, but believe it or not, the technology that would enable this kind of thing already exists. California-based startup Ubiquitous Energy has developed a completely transparent solar panel that’s practically indistinguishable from your average pane of glass – it’s just a matter of scaling it up for production and making the tech available. To find out how long we’ll have to wait until every building in the world is outfitted with power-generating window panes, we caught up with Ubiquitous Energy’s CEO and co-founder Miles Barr.

At first, the basics of transparent photovoltaics are a little counter-intuitive. A solar power cell indistinguishable from a standard pane of glass would have to let all visible light pass through in order to be fully transparent, but without capturing some of the light there is no source to generate power. But here’s the kicker — as it turns out, these solar cells aren’t capturing light that’s visible to the human eye. Instead, they’re designed to trap infrared and ultraviolet light, while allowing all visible wavelengths sail through unobstructed. Once the infrared and ultraviolet wavelengths are captured, they’re directed to the edges of the panel, where the light is captured by a very thin strip of traditional photovoltaic material and transformed into electricity.

This company is making transparent solar power cells a reality

UE clearly has its hands on a potentially revolutionary technology here, but unfortunately it’s still in the very, very early stages of development. The world of the future may very well be filled with transparent solar cell windows, but we definitely won’t get there overnight. So far, Ubiquitous Energy has focused its commercial application efforts on wearable devices and digital signage as the first official tech releases with transparent solar power panel screens, according to CEO Miles Barr. “With the world’s first truly transparent solar technology we are able to use the full surface of these products for energy harvesting without impacting aesthetics or function”, he said. Wearable gadgets, for example, could benefit from significantly extended battery life with transparent photovoltaic panels inlaid in the screens themselves.

Eventually, the Ubiquitous Energy team believes they will be able to completely eliminate the need for batteries in small consumer gadgets and even smart phones. Construction began on a rapid prototyping pilot production facility last year, as part of the company’s Silicon Valley headquarters. With so many production wheels in motion, Ubiquitous Energy is already partnering with commercial companies and manufacturers to join in development agreements that could bring solar powered consumer technology products to market even quicker.

Beyond wearable gadgets and digital signage, Ubiquitous Energy also has its eyes on smart phones, untethered Internet of Things sensors and connected devices, and eventually, large area smart windows. Barr says that the timeline from development to mass market production depends largely on customers’ needs (read: consumer demand): “Any device whose buyers would pay a premium for extended battery life are attractive targets… Our immediate focus is on addressing our customers many applications that have a strong value proposition utilizing our existing materials, while we continue to improve our underlying performance in parallel.”

Improving performance on the Ubiquitous Energy side means rigorous testing, further scientific innovation and more extensive commercial partnerships. Barr believes the company will be able to develop handheld tech applications to surpass 10% efficiency. Even though the company doesn’t commit publicly to an exact timeline for production, the incredible progress being accomplished on both the academic side through Dr. Lunt’s research team and on the commercial side through Ubiquitous Energy’s focus on consumer applications could mean transparent photovoltaic technology in our pockets sooner rather than later. The chronology towards skyscrapers and modern homes powered by transparent solar power cell windows is further off, but as interest and demand increase, so does Ubiquitous Energy’s ability to focus crucial resources on the development in question.

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