Published on Feb 26, 2014
Technology is getting smaller and smaller — but NOTHING compares to nanotechnology. As we learn more about how materials behave on the nanoscale, we have more potential applications to use nanotechnology practically — including more efficient solar energy! Jonathan Strickland explains how nanotech could even make our solar panels more efficient, flexible, and affordable.
What does “nanotechnology” mean to you? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!
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The future is huge for tiny technology.
Miniaturization is, perhaps ironically, a huge deal. I mean, without it we wouldn’t have had the personal computer revolution and we wouldn’t have this world we live in now where we have smartphones and tablets and other devices just as powerful as a computer, that can fit in the palm of your hand. But even these gadgets are gargantuan compared to nanotechnology.
See, a nanometer is just one billionth of a meter, and that’s kind of hard to imagine, so let me put it to you this way. Your typical sheet of paper is about one hundred thousand nanometers thick. And at this scale, individual elements are so small you can’t even see them with a light microscope. Now as we learn more about how materials behave on the nanoscale, we have more potential applications to use that knowledge practically.
I’m talking about how nanotech could help solar panel technology.
And fortunately, at a recent meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, or AAAS, they had a panel on just this very subject. Now, if you know anything about solar panels you know they have some drawbacks. For example, efficiency – they max out at around twenty percent in the field under ideal conditions. They’re also rigid, so you can’t just put them anywhere you like. And they tend to be expensive because manufacturing them is complicated. But scientists hope that nanotechnology can help address all three of these challenges.
Now with efficiency they’re looking to nature – specifically, moth eyes. You see, moths have these little tiny structures in their eyes that help reflect light back into the eye and it does two things – it lets them see better in the dark, and it cuts down on reflection so predators can’t spot them as easily. With solar panels it could actually make them more efficient by reflecting more of the sun’s light into the panel so you lose less in reflection.
And when we’re talking about flexibility, well nanomaterials are really, really small, and there is the potential to create solar panels that are just a few sheets of molecules thick. They could be as flexible as a sheet of paper, and with that kind of flexibility you could put those pretty much anywhere you wanted to.
And as for price, well, that’s the big one. And in the short term I don’t think it’s going to turn around. But scientists are cautiously optimistic that nanotechnology will let us use new processes, like printing solar panels directly onto a substrate using just a specialized printer. That would actually be less complicated and expensive than traditional manufacturing methods.
Now at that meeting of the AAAS, a Dr. Wolfgang Porod gave a talk about Nanoantenna Thermocouples for Energy Harvesting. Which I admit sounds like techno-babble straight out of a Star Trek episode. But it’s actually fairly simple once you break it down. A nanoantenna is just an antenna on the nanoscale. These resonate with long-wave infrared radiation. And a thermocouple? Well that’s a component of circuitry that generates a voltage when one part of the thermocouple is a different temperature than other part. So you pair these two together and the antenna generates heat and the thermocouple generates voltage. It could actually help increase the efficiency of solar panels.
Now like I said, nanotechnology is a young science and it has lots of different applications across many disciplines. And I’m really excited how such a small technology could have such a huge impact.