Transparent solar collector to turn skyscrapers into power plants

We may soon be able to create electricity using the screens of our phones, windows in buildings and any other clear surface.

Researchers have created a ‘transparent’ surface that can capture light and convert it into electricity using solar technology.

The team, from Michigan State University, developed organic molecules that are able to take in waves of sunlight which are not visible to the human eye.

It is the first time that a transparent solar concentrator has been created.

Richard Lunt who worked on the research, said that the unique nature of the transparency means we may be able to incorporate it into our everyday lives and create energy from clear surfaces.

“It opens a lot of area to deploy solar energy in a non-intrusive way,” Lunt said. “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.”

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As the materials used do not absorb or emit any light that can be seen by the human eye, this means they appear transparent when we look at them.

Instead they rely on infrared light, which is guided to the edge of the material where it is converted to electricity by solar cells.

“No one wants to sit behind colored glass,” explained Lunt. “It makes for a very colorful environment, like working in a disco. We take an approach where we actually make the luminescent active layer itself transparent.

“We can tune these materials to pick up just the ultraviolet and the near infrared wavelengths that then ‘glow’ at another wavelength in the infrared.”

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The previously developed coloured concentrators developed by MIT

However the future for the technology isn’t yet crystal clear as work needs to be done on improving the energy-producing efficiency.

Currently its solar conversion rate lies close to one percent, but the researchers believe they will be able to get it close to five percent when everything has been fully optimised.

At present coloured variations of the concentrator have efficiency levels of around seven percent.


Featured image and image one courtesy of the Michigan State Univeristy. Image two courtesy of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology


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Graphene-based electronics cooling system almost ready for production trials

A breakthrough electronics cooling film made from graphene nanoflakes is almost ready for pilot-scale production.

Developed by scientists at Sweden’s Chalmers University of Technology, the film provides significant heat transfer without requiring much space, making it an excellent solution to cooling compact electronics.

The scientists have been developing the film for several years, last year announcing that they had succeeded in making it four times more thermally conductive than copper, and now believe they are nearing the stage where they can begin trialling production of the film.

“Essentially, we have found a golden key with which to achieve efficient heat transport in electronics and other power devices by using graphene nanoflake-based film,” said Johan Liu, professor of electronics production at Chalmers.

“This can open up potential uses of this kind of film in broad areas, and we are getting closer to pilot-scale production based on this discovery.”

A trial version of the film from 2015. Image courtesy of Chalmers University of Technology

A trial version of the film from 2015. Image courtesy of Chalmers University of Technology

Over the past year the researchers have succeeded in improving the film’s heat transfer efficiency by an incredible 76%.

This was achieved by introducing functionalized amino and azide-based silane molecules to the film.

These significantly reduced contact resistance, which resulted in the dramatic gains in heat transfer efficiency.

The scientists also used computer modelling of molecular behaviour, combined with a form to computational chemistry known as ab initio calculations, to determine how the film affected low-frequency phonons – effectively particles of heat.

They found that the film’s functional layer restricts cross-plane scattering, preventing many phonons from crossing between different layers of the film, and so improving in-plane heat conduction – enabling heat to be better conducted across a single layer.

A depiction of how functionalized molecules improve the film's heat transfer efficiency. Image courtesy of Philip Krantz and Krantz Nanoart via Johan Liu

A depiction of how functionalized molecules improve the film’s heat transfer efficiency. Image courtesy of Philip Krantz and Krantz Nanoart via Johan Liu

The research, which is published today in the journal Nature Communications, is a highly significant step in progressing the film to production.

“This is the first time that such systematic research has been done,” said Liu.

“The present work is much more extensive than previously published results from several involved partners, and it covers more functionalization molecules and also more extensive direct evidence of the thermal contact resistance measurement.”

In time, the film could make its way into an array of tiny electronics, from wearable technologies to city-based IoT sensors.

Scientists have discovered how to change skin and hair colour

In the future scientists may be able to alter people’s skin and hair colour, thanks to a stem cell study that has located the mechanism that controls both.

The study, by scientists at NYU Langone Medical Center, describes how the control of skin and hair cells, known as melanocyte stem cells, is regulated by cell-to-cell signalling reactions.

These reactions are part of the endothelin receptor type B (EdnrB) and the Wnt signalling pathways.

By stimulating the EdnrB pathway, wounded skin in normally white mice became dark upon healing, and by blocking Wnt signalling and stopping melanocyte stem cells from developing into normally functioning melanocytes, mice developed unpigmented grayish fur.

vitiligo

“Our study results show that EdnrB signaling plays a critical role in growth and regeneration of certain pigmented skin and hair cells and that this pathway is dependent on a functioning Wnt pathway,” says study senior investigator and cell biologist Mayumi Ito, PhD

If the mechanism that controls skin colour was targeted, then the researchers believe that the technique could be used to repigment cells damaged by vitiligo, a disfiguring illness marked by the loss of skin pigmentation that leaves its sufferers with a blotchy, white complexion.

The same technique could also recolour greyed hair cells for people who can’t or won’t use cosmetic dyes, and to correct discoloration around scars.

hair-dyeing

The study’s co-lead investigator and postdoctoral fellow Dr Wendy Lee, said the mechanism’s involvement in the determination of hair colour was “clearly evident” in the mice when she first examined them.

The team was then able to achieve a 15-fold increase in pigment production within two months, producing a phenomenon called “hyperpigmentation” in the mice.

Ito says her team plans to further investigate how signalling pathways interact with EdnrB and melanocyte stem cells and hope to find other ways to activate these pathways.

The researchers’ full findings are available in the journal Cell Reports.