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In the Press

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Infrared Silicon Cells May Vastly Improve Solar Capacity

Scientists in Spain have announced the development of silicon photovoltaic cells capable of converting the sun’s infrared rays to electrical energy, opening the possibility of increasing PV efficiency. In an article on Nanowerk News, researchers from the Universitat Politècnica de València, the Spanish National Research Council, the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya-Barcelona Tech, and the Universidad Rovira i Virgili de Tarragona made the joint announcement.

According to the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya’s Moisés Garín, the cells trap infrared light and spins it until it is turned into electricity.

Infrared light makes up approximately 53 percent of the solar spectrum, and is normally experienced as heat. However, it cannot currently be used by PV to create electricity. Visible light, which typically powers PV cells, constitutes 44 percent, and ultraviolet 3 percent. An infrared absorbing cell, therefore, could theoretically double solar’s efficiency.

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Going Solar? There’s an App for That

Getting the best performance from solar panels is critical to maximizing energy usage efficiency. Xylem, a water technology company, has introduced a free app for the iPhone that helps users adjust the placement and orientation of their panels. The app is called XyDial. It enables users to locate, configure and adjust a solar panel in real-time, finding the ideal position that will receive the most sunlight and maximize power output

The app helps homeowners and installers, but Xylem created it primarily to support rural farming—which explains why a water tech company got involved in solar panel placement. The company has an Essence of Life initiative—as part of the first phasethey have developed a stepping pump that enables farmers to irrigate their crops more efficiently and effectively.

XyDial works by selecting where shadows and objects are in relation to the panel, and adjusts for any buildings or trees that may obstruct the sun’s arc. It uses some of iPhone’s built-in capabilities, such as the digital compass and gyroscope, which helps the app determine the optimal alignment relative to the sun’s arc for a particular location and date range.

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Best Buy and Home Depot Will Make Solar Panels Available in Their Stores

In the first efforts to make solar panels available in retail chain stores, Best Buy and Home Depot have announced agreements with California-based solar panel manufacturer SolarCity. The deals reflect the continuing drop in the pricing of solar energy systems, and increased public interest. According to a SolarCity survey, approximately 62 percent of US homeowners are interested in using solar panels, but fewer than 500,000 homes have photovoltaic panels on their roofs.

The main reason for the lack of commitment is believed to be the high upfront cost of installing solar. The deals with Best Buy and Home Depot include having store personnel walk customers through the process of installation and its eventual return on investment.

SolarCity, whose chairman is Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk, will be able to sell its panels nationwide through the chain distributors.

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Lincoln Tunnel Switches to High Efficiency LED Lighting

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the agency that operates the Lincoln Tunnel, says the facility will save $283,000 per year from its recent switch to LED lighting. According to the agency, 42 million drivers pass through the tunnel that connects New York and New Jersey each year. The Authority replaced 2,300 45-watt lights through the length of the tunnel. They installed more than 3,000 LED lights in nearby the Holland Tunnel last year, resulting in an annual savings of $250,000.

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Energy Saving 2-D LEDs Developed by University of Washington

University of Washington scientists have developed a three-atom thick LED that can be used in electronic devices, potentially saving power loss through heat. The new LEDs are ten to twenty times thinner than conventional LEDs used in consumer products. Xiaodong Xu, a UW assistant professor in materials science and engineering and in physics, and grad student Jason Ross reported their findings in an online paper in Nature Nanotechnology on March 9.

The UW’s LED is made from flat sheets of the molecular semiconductor known as tungsten diselenide, a member of a group of two-dimensional materials that have been recently identified as the thinnest-known semiconductors.

In addition to light-emitting applications, this technology could use light as interconnects to run nano-scale computer chips instead of standard devices that operate off the movement of electrons, or electricity.

“These are 10,000 times smaller than the thickness of a human hair, yet the light they emit can be seen by standard measurement equipment,” Ross said. “This is a huge leap of miniaturization of technology, and because it’s a semiconductor, you can do almost everything with it that is possible with existing, three-dimensional silicon technologies.”

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Germany Shows Future of Electric Cars with DC-Based Charging Station

Germany is one of the nations firmly committed to a renewable energy future. Already more than 20 percent of the nation’s power is produced from solar and other renewable sources. Being able to efficiently utilize those sources is part of the issues that must be addressed. According to an article on automotiveworld.com, the country has more than 2,000 electric car charging spots. At the largest, at Fraunhofer Institute Center Stuttgart IZS –up to 30 electric vehicles at a time can re-charge at AC charge spots in the campus parking garage. There is also one DC fast charging spot that has a charging capacity of up to 50 kilowatts and can fully charge a car’s battery in just 20 minutes.

To get that kind of simultaneous power output requires state-of-the-art smart grid technology and load management. Daimler AG and the Institute for Human Factors and Technology Management at the University of Stuttgart, IAO scientists are developing both the charging infrastructure and the energy management in a project called charge@work. Their aim is to design a micro smart grid (MSG) capable of supplying the EV fleet with electricity produced exclusively from renewable sources. The MSG will be DC power based, to avoid the losses that occur when transforming alternating current (AC) into DC.

The ultimate goal of the project is to combine the micro smart grids into a large smart grid for EV charging. Over the next two years, the MSG innovation network will provide interested parties with an opportunity to work up new kinds of smart grid configurations and operating strategies.

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Heavy Hydrogen May Be Key in Making of Organic Solar Cells

Scientists at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory have discovered an effect of deuterium, also known as heavy hydrogen, on the analysis of polymer-based solar devices, which may affect how organic solar cells can be constructed. In an article reported by R&D Magazine, the scientists said that the deuterium is used to perform a neutron scattering analysis. Normally, the deuterium is a labeling tool, and has no effect on the substance being studied. But when used on the polymers, deuterium changed the devices’ electronic performance significantly. This means deuterium could potentially be used in the design and structuring of the polymers as solar cells.

More research needs to be done, of course, but the implications could be widespread in a variety of organically-based solar devices such as polymer paint that could be sprayed onto windows to make them into solar cells.

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Quadriplegic Harvard Grad Chooses Nextek STAR Trailer to Promote Solar Power

Brooke Ellison believes in the benefits of solar power. The Harvard graduate, who is also a quadriplegic, relies on a respirator for survival. She recently received the use of a STAR trailer from Nextek to serve as the primary backup for her equipment, as part of her efforts to promote solar power.

Brook Ellison with some of the Nextek staff who made her use of the STAR trailer possible.

She heard about the STAR (Stationary or Transportable Available Resource) trailer from friends at SUNY Stony Brook. The mobile unit collects solar power via photovoltaic panels, and stores it in a series of battery packs that can be transported to individuals. The STAR has been used to provide power to people living in remote areas that do not have a connection to the grid, such as in the region of Haiti affected by a 2011 earthquake.

Nextek personnel, SUNY Stony Brook, and the State of New York all worked to make the STAR trailer available to Ellison.

Ellison was paralyzed after being hit by a car at age 11, but did not let the accident stop her pursuit of education. She graduated from Harvard in 2000, and was elected to give the class commencement speech.

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Wearing Solar: Scientists and Designers Apply Photovoltaic Cells to Personal Uses

By now, nearly everyone is familiar with the idea of using photovoltaic cells to capture sunlight and convert it to electrical energy on homes and buildings. But an increasing number of creative people are applying the technology to smaller, personal devices, with some fascinating results. Designer Pauline van Dongen, Project Director Christiaan Holland, and solar-energy expert Gert Jan Jongerden, have designed a Solar coat and Solar dress, which store and discharge electricity while being worn. The coat incorporates 48 rigid solar cells while the dress has 72 flexible solar cells. Each of them, if worn in the full sun for an hour, can store enough energy to allow a typical smartphone to be 50% charged. Although the products are not yet on the market, the team is already imagining other articles that would allow people to become energy sources.

On the TV show “The Big Bang Theory,” the characters believe “Everything is better with Bluetooth.” That philosophy has made it to a photovoltaic bracelet that tells its wearer how much sun she is receiving, and even suggests protective measures. The June bracelet is made by Netatmo and designed by Louis Vuitton and Harry Winston collaborator Camille Toupet. The device syncs over Bluetooth to a paired iPhone, where an app tells you how much sun you're getting based upon readings from the bracelet's photovoltaic gem. It also recommends sunglasses, a hat or a specific sunscreen based upon the measurements. It costs $100, and will come in platinum, gold, or gunmetal. It is expected to be available for sale later this year.

Even the military is getting into the wearable solar act. A demonstration project, the Marine Austere Patrolling System (MAPS), showed how portable, wearable solar panels could be used to power a variety of high-tech equipment. The panels could eliminate the need for soldiers to carry batteries in the field, greatly decreasing the weight of their field packs, which can weigh as much as 150 pounds when laden with batteries. Initial tests received high marks from the Marines involved, and research into wearable military solar continues, although the pace of the science has been slowed by budget cuts and troop drawdowns from overseas operating theaters.

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Energy Audits Help Michigan Farmers Go Energy-Efficient

The Michigan Milk Producers Association has partnered with Michigan State University to make farm energy audits available to its members. These audits help farmers develop a comprehensive energy plan that pinpoints areas for reducing energy costs and energy use. Energy audits conducted on 106 Michigan dairy farms between 2010 and 2013 showed a potential energy efficiency savings of 49 percent. That works out to about $8,200 in potential savings annually per farm.

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Agreement on Set-Top TV Boxes Could Save $1 Billion a Year in Energy Costs

An agreement among environmental advocates, government regulators and the cable and satellite television industry will make TV set-top boxes as much as 45% more energy-efficient by 2017. According to an article in The Los Angeles Times, the upgraded boxes could save enough power to run 700,000 homes, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. The boxes are considered energy hogs because they always are on, even when the television is turned off. The agreement is anticipated to save an estimated $1 billion a year in energy costs.

Companies including Comcast, Motorola, DirecTV and AT&T have all pledged to abide by the agreement.

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Perovskite Solar Cell Material Shows Promise in Bringing Costs Down, Efficiencies Up

Pervoskite, a hybrid of organic-inorganic materials that has a particular crystalline structure, has shown promise in creating solar cells with cost factors and efficiencies that would allow solar generated power to rival the cost of fossil fuels. According to an article on the MIT Technology Review web site, the material has made equivalent progress in development in just four years, compared to more than a decade for currently-used solar cell materials, silicon and cadmium telluride.

Unlike conventional solar cell materials, the new material doesn’t require an electric field to produce an electrical current. This reduces the amount of material needed and produces higher voltages, which can help increase power output, according to Andrew Rappe, co-director of Pennergy, a center for energy innovation at the University of Pennsylvania.

Recently, Dr. Hendrik Bolink of the Institut de Ciència Molecular (ICMol) of the Scientific Park of the University of Valencia, Spain, claimed he has developed a thin-film solar photovoltaic device using pervoskite (Perovskite solar cells employing organic charge-transport layers, according to his report.) The solar cell developed by the researchers of the ICMol consists of a thin perovskite film sandwiched in between two very thin organic semiconductors. The total thickness of the device is less than half a micrometer. The also said that their film is less toxic to make than current solar cells.

The main challenge to using pervoskite to make solar cells is the material’s durability, experts said.

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