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


Solar-powered plane completes round-the-world flight

Solar Impulse 2, the solar-powered plane capable of flying in perpetuity without fuel, has circumnavigated the globe for the first time. The plane, which embarked on its journey in March 2015, completed the trip in 17 legs, totalling 23 days of flight.

Source: Factor

The US has first legal drone delivery

The first drone delivery to be officially approved by the US Federal Aviation Authority has been made in Nevada, the US. The delivery, which was made by 7-Eleven and Flirtey, a drone startup, included a chicken sandwich, coffee and doughnuts.

Source: Phys.org

Edward Snowden develops anti-surveillance device for phones

The US whistleblower Edward Snowden, in partnership with hardware pro Andrew Huang, is developing a phone case that blocks attempts to remotely activate the gadget’s microphone or camera. A prototype should be available within the next year.

Source: Wired

Judge rules that bitcoin not a currency

A judge in Miami, the US, has ruled the bitcoin is not a currency, saying that it still has a long way to go before it can be considered money. The decision, which resulted in a money laundering case being thrown out, has significant implications for the status of Bitcoin.

Source: Miami Herald

CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing to be trialled on humans for first time

The first ever human trial of the revolutionary CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technique is being held in China next month. The trial will see scientists from Sichuan University’s West China Hospital edit the DNA of patients suffering from lung cancer.

Source: The Guardian

Facebook tests internet-delivering solar drone

Facebook has successfully completed the first test flight of its internet-delivering solar-powered drone. In the future, the social media giant plans to deploy fleets of the drone around the world, in a bid to bring web access to the four billion people currently offline.

Source: Market Watch

Fuel-generating photosynthetic solar cell engineered for first time

A research team at the University of Illinois, Chicago, has developed a new form of solar cell that operates on the same basis as plant photosynthesis; cheaply and efficiently converting atmospheric carbon dioxide into usable hydrocarbon fuel, with the only energy it requires coming from sunlight.

While conventional solar cells require heavy batteries to store the electricity they produce from sunlight, the new solar cell directly converts carbon dioxide into fuel. These “artificial leaves”, if in operation on a large-scale solar farm, would be able to not only provide energy-dense fuel at an efficiency far beyond that of normal cells, but also remove significant amounts of carbon from the atmosphere in the process.

“The new solar cell is not photovoltaic – it’s photosynthetic,” said Amin Salehi-Khojin, assistant professor of mechanical and industrial engineering at UIC and senior author on the study.

“Instead of producing energy in an unsustainable one-way route from fossil fuels to greenhouse gas, we can now reverse the process and recycle atmospheric carbon into fuel using sunlight.”

Amin Salehi-Khojin (left) and postdoctoral researcher Mohammad Asadi pose with the artificial leaf

Amin Salehi-Khojin (left) and postdoctoral researcher Mohammad Asadi pose with the artificial leaf

The cell produces syngas, a mixture of hydrogen gas and carbon monoxide that can either be burned directly or converted into a range of hydrocarbon fuels, including diesel. Such a process is known as a reduction reaction, as it converts CO₂ into a burnable form of carbon.

Until now producing such reactions was inefficient, and relied on expensive precious metals as catalysts.

Deciding that they required a “new family of chemicals with extraordinary properties”, Salehi-Khojin and his team selected a group of nano-structured compounds called transition metal dichalcogenides (TMDCs) to focus on. These were placed in a two-compartment, three-electrode electrochemical cell along with an unconventional ionic liquid which functioned as an electrolyte.

The purpose of this was to determine the most efficient catalyst, and it worked: the team’s ultimate choice was nanoflake tungsten diselenide, a material which was found to be 1,000 times faster and 20 times cheaper than the previously used noble-metal catalysts.

However, there was still more to do to make the process work, as on its own, the catalyst can’t survive the necessary reaction to produce fuel. The solution was to add an ionic fluid with the catchy name ethyl-methyl-imidazolium tetrafluoroborate, mixed 50-50 with water, which allows the catalyst to endure the reaction.

“The combination of water and the ionic liquid makes a co-catalyst that preserves the catalyst’s active sites under the harsh reduction reaction conditions,” Salehi-Khojin said.

A lab demonstration of the technology producing syngas when exposed to artificial sunlight. Inline images courtesy of University of Illinois at Chicago / Jenny Fontaine

A lab demonstration of the technology producing syngas when exposed to artificial sunlight. Inline images courtesy of University of Illinois at Chicago / Jenny Fontaine

The technology, which has had a provisional patent application filed, should have a fairly high rate of adaptability, as it is usable on both large and small scales. Perhaps the most exciting possibility raised, however, is usage on Mars. Given that the planet’s atmosphere is mostly carbon dioxide, if water is found, these cells could go a long way towards contributing to possible settlement on the red planet.

Robert McCabe, National Science Foundation program director, said: “The results nicely meld experimental and computational studies to obtain new insight into the unique electronic properties of transition metal dichalcogenide.

“The research team has combined this mechanistic insight with some clever electrochemical engineering to make significant progress in one of the grand-challenge areas of catalysis as related to energy conversion and the environment.”

The dangers of space travel: Apollo astronauts experience increased cardiovascular problems

A new study has found that astronauts involved in the Apollo space programme experience higher rates of cardiovascular-related deaths than those who never ventured beyond low-Earth orbit – the cause of which is likely to be exposure to deep space radiation.

The paper, published in Scientific Reports by Florida State University (FSU) Dean of the College of Human Sciences Professor Michael Delp, notes that the men who travelled into deep space as part of the Apollo missions were exposed to very high levels of galactic cosmic radiation.

And it is this exposure to radiation that is now manifesting itself as cardiovascular problems, which could have deep implications for future missions beyond low-Earth orbit, including those to Mars.

Apollo 16 astronauts Thomas K Mattingly II and Charles M Duke undertake a spacewalk during the mission. Above: Duke in his role as lunar module pilot during the Apollo 16 lunar landing

Apollo 16 astronauts Thomas K Mattingly II and Charles M Duke undertake a spacewalk during the mission. Above: Duke in his role as lunar module pilot during the Apollo 16 lunar landing

The Apollo space programme ran from 1961 to 1972, with 11 manned flights into space – nine of which flew beyond Earth’s orbit into deep space. This study is the first to look at the mortality rate of these Apollo astronauts.

“We know very little about the effects of deep space radiation on human health, particularly on the cardiovascular system,” Delp explained. “This gives us the first glimpse into its adverse effects on humans.”

The research is of particular interest as the US, other nations and private organisations continue to make plans for deep space travel. Elon Musk ‘s SpaceX, for example, has proposed landing humans on Mars by 2026. And NASA plans to launch orbital missions around the moon from 2020 to 2030.

While astronauts have access to top medical care, the Apollo mission members did experience vastly different environmental conditions when they travelled into deep space – conditions that, the study has found, have affected their health.

The study revealed that 43% of deceased Apollo astronauts died from cardiovascular problems – four to five times higher than non-flight astronauts and those who travelled in low-Earth orbit.

Apollo 8 astronauts make their way to the launch pad to begin the mission, led by commander colonel Frank Borman and command module pilot James A Lovell Jr. Images courtesy of NASA

Apollo 8 astronauts make their way to the launch pad to begin the mission, led by commander colonel Frank Borman and command module pilot James A Lovell Jr. Images courtesy of NASA

A total of 24 men travelled into deep space as part of the Apollo lunar missions – eight have died; seven were included in the study (the eighth died after the data analysis had been completed).

Delp’s team carried out an animal test as part of the research, exposing mice to the type of radiation that Apollo astronauts would have experienced. After six months, or the equivalent of 20 human years, the mice showed damage to arteries that is known to lead to the development of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease.

“What the mouse data show is that deep space radiation is harmful to vascular health,” Delp said. He is currently working with NASA to carry out further studies on the Apollo astronauts with regard to their cardiovascular health.