Researchers developed transparent solar panels that will turn every window into a power source: here’s how they did it.

Solar panels have become commonly associated with the image of large black squares covering an expansive landscape. But the latest advancement in solar panel technology indicates this could soon change, as a team of researchers at Michigan State University (MSU) created a fully transparent solar concentrator in 2014. The breakthrough gave way to the first-ever transparent solar panels.

The Transparent Solar Panel Team

The team was led by Richard Lunt, Endowed Associate Professor of Chemical Engineering and Material Science at MSU. His company, Ubiquitous Energy, an MIT startup he cofounded, has developed the completely transparent solar panels.

While transparent solar panels have a way to go before making it to market, there is a lot of excitement over this development and the potential to improve solar energy as we know it.

How it Works

As ExtremeTech’s Jamie Lendino explained it, the way a solar panel works has made it essentially impossible for transparent solar panels to exist. considering photovoltaic solar cells produce energy by absorbing sunlight and turning it into electricity. This means that in order for a solar panel to work it needs to be visible enough to absorb light, which would not happen with transparent material because the light would just pass through it.

Addressing the Challenge

To realistically address this challenge, the team at MSU decided to change the way solar panels absorb light by creating what they call a transparent luminescent solar concentrator (TLSC).
TLSC uses organic salts to absorb any infrared and ultraviolet wavelengths of the solar spectrum. Once it harnesses infrared light, its luminescent glow is directed to the edge of the glass.
With traditional solar panels, the solar cells frame the panel of the main material. Similarly, the TLSC design has thin strips of solar cells lining the edge of the glass, where they can convert solar energy to electricity.

Transparent Solar Panels for Renewable Energy

Transparent solar panels would be a total game changer in the reusable energy industry. Ubiquitous Energy and the team at MSU are both confident that the technology can be used on anything from mobile devices to large industrial and commercial applications. Additionally, the team believes that it will be possible to keep this technology both affordable and attainable.

A Plan for Scalability

Lendino writes that as of 2015, the TLSC’s efficiency was around 1 percent, which the team thinks can be scaled up to 10 percent once productions begins. Non-transparent luminescent concentrators max out at seven percent. These differences, while small, can add up quickly when considering how many transparent solar panels would be needed per house or building.

The Challenges

One of the biggest drawbacks to solar panels has long been their bulky nature. This would change with the mass production of transparent solar panels made from sheets of glass and plastic.
“It opens a lot of area to deploy solar energy in a non-intrusive way,” said Lunt. “It can be used on tall buildings with lots of windows or any kind of mobile device that demands high aesthetic quality like a phone or e-reader. Ultimately we want to make solar harvesting surfaces that you do not even know are there.”