Humans have been tinkering with solar energy for more than a century already, as the first attempts of using it have been recorded in 1878 when Augustin Mouchot demonstrated a fully functional solar steam engine. Unfortunately, because of cheap coal it did not attract any interest. However, in the 1880s Charles Fritts constructed the first solar cell, that used sun rays to generate electricity. Various inventors and scientists have been working on more efficient solar cells ever since, and in the 1980s first commercial solar power plants have been developed. This time, Sun really got everybody’s attention, as the technology was thought to have a lot of prospects.
Current solar energy capturing techniques
Nuclear energetics was one of the leading power production techniques for a major part of the XX century. However, growing uncertainty about the safety and sustainability of such a technology made scientists and investors look into renewable energy sources as well as into this whole solar thing. Therefore, nowadays we have a lot of different uses for solar power of which most popular are the production of electricity and heating of various installations.
As mentioned before first solar power plants were developed in the 80s, but a long time has passed since. The major improvement of cell chemistry has been made and scientists have been able to achieve an efficiency of more than 40%. That is quite astounding when compared to the first-ever cell that had an efficiency of less than 1%. Combining this with a sharp decrease in solar cell prices, more and more countries are choosing solar energy as one of the main energy sources.
Furthermore, people have figured out that the sun can be used to heat up a vast amount of water. Therefore, solar energy was started to be used for heating up houses and providing hot water even during wintertime.
As solar energy requirements grow constantly, so does manufacturing techniques and efficiency of solar devices, as well as devices for storing energy. One of the examples would be lens systems that concentrate solar power. It’s like burning ants with a magnifying lens, but instead of destroying, these systems increase the efficiency of solar systems.
Of course we should not forget a “Tesla, Inc.” development and recent improvement in lithium ions batteries, as they allow us to store excess energy during daytime and use it during nighttime and/or peak hours. Effective batteries are one of the major factors in the success of solar power plants.
Solar energy capturing glass
Okay, but you probably think that solar energy capturing devices takes up much space that could be used for agriculture or something similar instead. Well, a California based startup called Ubiquitous Energy had similar thoughts, so they developed a window embedded with a lot of clear photovoltaic cells. Just imagine if you could generate your own electricity by using your windows. The whole system is so similar to a regular window that many of us would have difficulty recognizing it. Since it uses only IR an UV light to capture solar energy, for our eyes it would look just like a regular glass window while providing enough energy to power your house.
Technology itself is not limited to windows, it could be applied just about anywhere where a regular glass is currently used. Just imagine if your newest iPhone would not need charging as it would get its energy from the sun. Wouldn’t it be cool?
Artificial trees – futuristic solar energy source
Regular trees use photosynthesis to turn water and carbon dioxide into oxygen and various polymer fuels that we know as wood. But just imagine if we could use captured solar energy to power artificial photosynthesis. Although the idea itself may be far-fetched, Yale Climate Connections claims, that scientists have started working on such a technology. In theory it would solve two problems. It would reduce carbon dioxide concentration in the air and it would provide us with fuel that we would be able to use to power our cars or even passenger planes. Although an interesting concept, that may be possible in the future, it does not sound very efficient. But still, can you imagine pumping your own gas from an artificial tree “growing” in your backyard?
Solar energy fueled airplanes
As solar energy powered cars are no news, there have been several successful attempts using solar power to run a plane. The theory is simple. Stick some solar cells on the wings of your electric plane and you’re good to go. However, in practice we run into problems, that we can only power very small aircraft that are incapable of providing enough power to be used as cargo or passenger planes. And batteries in practical terms don’t work so well either because of too low energy density. Therefore, the concept of solar planes may not be far-fetched, but we need to develop more efficient batteries and solar cells in order for this to work.
Other devices using solar energy
Of course, solar energy is the new hype of our generation. In the past we had solar-powered calculators. But nowadays there have been attempts to put solar cells in almost every item you can imagine. Solar roofs, solar tiles, solar roadways, solar cars, solar loudspeakers, and even solar watch. Most of the concepts are not possible or commercially viable, but they are interesting nonetheless. And who knows, maybe in the future some of them will work.
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