There is a new solar energy design on the block, and it is bio-inspired by nature. The design has taken inspiration from the structure of leaves, and it is more effective than some conventional technology.
Photovoltaic (PV) solar energy converts sunshine into electricity. Previous PV cells are not that efficient, with 10-25 percent of solar energy being converted to electricity and the rest of the unusable solar energy can turn the PV cells extremely hot when it is a nice sunny summer’s day.
One way to cool PV cells down is by employing active thermal management methods, and this can be by removing heat via water or air flows. This can add complexity in the technology, as they require either heat-exchanging structures and/or hydraulic structures to cool them down. This can increase the cost, but also are associated with parasitic electricity consumption that drives the energy down. Passive thermal management methods can be used, but while being simple are not as efficient.
Now, researchers from Imperial College London have looked to redesign the PV technology so that it can co-generate electricity, heat, and clean water, while also being effective to improve electrical performance. The scientists looked to our green friends: plants. The new technology is aptly named photovoltaic leaf (PV-leaf for short) and is created from low-cost materials.
A plant leaf is an amazing structure. It has many different layers and structures, which allow it to move water from the roots to the leaves – this is known as transpiration. Transpiration helps keep leaves cool and functioning so they can complete photosynthesis.
Scientists took this makeup and created the PV-leaf, which can also mimic the transpiration process. The PV-leaf is made up of natural fibers that drive water (without a pump) from a separate water tank to a solar cell, this allows water to cover the whole cell and evaporate. The water vapor and heat can then be captured within a collector in addition to any electricity collected. This all accumulates in a smart, neatly packaged system that can affordably and effectively remove heat from solar PV cells.
“Implementing this innovative leaf-like design could help expedite the global energy transition, while addressing two pressing global challenges: the need for increased energy and freshwater”, said Professor Christos Markides, Head of Clean Energy Processes Laboratory, in a statement.
When tested, the PV-leaf is more efficient than the more conventional shaped solar panels, where the PV-leaf can generate 10 percent more electricity. This new design also has the added benefit of potentially producing over 40 billion cubic meters of freshwater each year, and eliminates the need for expensive porous materials, fans, control units, and pumps.
This new piece of tech could help inspire and elevate a whole new generation of renewable energy technologies.
The study is published in the journal Nature Communications.