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


Augmented reality helmet to revolutionise firefighting

A team from Swiss research institute EPFL is developing a visor that will help firefighters see everything around them in real time.

While firefighters battle with flames on a daily basis, they also face dangers in the form of toxic smoke and darkness, which can slow their progress, adding critical time to rescue operations. The protective gear they wear can weigh over 20kg, and between dragging a firehose and carrying a thermal camera to help them analyse their surroundings, their job is not an easy one.

So, in an attempt to lighten the load, two engineers at EPFL – Adrien Birbaumer and Martijn Bosch – have come up with a solution that frees up firefighters’ hands.

Their solution, which is part of the VIZIR project at the Images and Visual Representation Laboratory, involves placing a mini infrared camera on the firefighter’s helmet and incorporating a transparent screen in the oxygen mask.

“[Firefighters] really count on the thermal imaging camera, but it gets in the way and forces them to interrupt their search if they want to analyse a room,” Birbaumer and Bosch explained.

But with this smart visor, firefighters are able to move around more easily and avoid obstacles without having to interrupt their search process.

Wearing the mask, firefighters see two images in their field of vision: what their eyes see and what the thermal imaging camera records and displays in real time. The infrared camera uses the standard red and blue colours to represent hot and cold zones but, Birbaumer noted, “we had to find the right tones that would be visible on a transparent surface.”

Images courtesy of Alain Herzog / EPFL

Images courtesy of Alain Herzog / EPFL

The engineers are testing their prototype in collaboration with ECA, the public fire and natural disaster insurance company in Vaud Canton. Firefighters wear the prototype visor during training sessions to test its effectiveness and give feedback.

And according to Jean-Marc Pittet, the man in charge of training firefighters in Vaud Canton: “At first it’s hard to know what you’re seeing, if it’s the real thing or not, but you get used to it surprisingly fast and can easily handle the two overlapping views.”

So while the double vision effect might take some getting used to, the next step is to incorporate the screen into the oxygen mask itself and make this augmented reality, well, a reality for firefighters.

Beyond design limits: How to harness new materials and fabrication methods

New technologies such as additive manufacturing are improving the ability to turn advanced materials that combine extreme strength with super lightness into previously unimaginable shapes.

However, generating new designs that are able to fully exploit the properties of these advanced materials has proven challenging, and today’s design technologies are unable to recreate the level of physical detail and complexity made possible with innovative manufacturing capabilities and materials.

This is where DARPA comes in. In April of this year, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced its TRAnsformative DESign (TRADES) programme – a research effort to develop new mathematics and algorithms that can fully take advantage of this new design space.

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“The structural and functional complexities introduced by today’s advanced materials and manufacturing methods have exceeded our capacity to simultaneously optimize all the variables involved,” explained Jan Vandenbrande, DARPA programme manager.

“We have reached the fundamental limits of what our computer-aided design tools and processes can handle, and need revolutionary new tools that can take requirements from a human designer and propose radically new concepts, shapes and structures that would likely never be conceived by even our best design programs today, much less by a human alone.”

DARPA uses a phased array radar and an aircraft skin as an example of a difficult structure to design with currently available tools, as its components vary considerably in their physical or functional properties.

While the components in this structure are usually designed separately before being joined, the TRADES programme envisions a more unified design – for example embedding the radar directly into the aircraft skin itself – which could reduce cost, size and weight of future military systems.

DARPA’s TRAnsformative DESign (TRADES) programme is a fundamental research effort to develop new mathematics and algorithms that can more fully take advantage of the almost boundless design space that has been enabled by new materials and fabrication methods. Image courtesy of DARPA

DARPA’s TRAnsformative DESign (TRADES) programme is a fundamental research effort to develop new mathematics and algorithms that can more fully take advantage of the almost boundless design space that has been enabled by new materials and fabrication methods. Image courtesy of DARPA

And what’s more, existing design tools are unable to take full advantage of the unique properties and processing requirements of the advanced materials, such as carbon fibre composites, which have their own shaping requirements. If these requirements are not taken into account during the design process, it could result in production difficulties or defects.

These problems could be mitigated or even eliminated if designers had the tools to account for these specific characteristics and requirements.

“Much of today’s design is really re-design based on useful but very old ideas. The design for building aircraft fuselages today, for example, is based on a spar-and-rib concept that dates back to design ideas from four thousand years ago when ancient ships such as the Royal Barge of Khufu used this basic design concept for its hull,” added Vandenbrande.

“TRADES could revolutionize such well-worn designs.”

Round the world and back in time: Solar Impulse plane lands in birthplace of flight

Solar Impulse 2, the sun-powered plane that has already flown around two thirds of its way around the world without a drop of fuel, has landed in Dayton, Ohio, the birthplace of flight.

The home of Wilbur and Orville Wright, the men who invented, built and flew the first successful aeroplane, the US city is the 12th stop on Solar Impulse’s round-the-world journey, and the fifth city in the country that the 72m-wide plane has landed.

The plane, piloted from Tulsa, Oklahoma, by Solar Impulse co-founder and CEO André Borschberg, landed in Dayton on 21st May at 9:56pm local time, completing the 692 mile journey, which took 16 hours and 34 minutes.

Borschberg flew at an altitude of up to 21,000ft (6,401m) with an average speed of 41.76 miles per hour (67.2km/h).

Bertrand Piccard (left) and André Borschberg pose with a model of the Wright Flyer, having landed in Dayton, Ohio, the birthplace of flight. Images courtesy of Solar Impulse

Bertrand Piccard (left) and André Borschberg pose with a model of the Wright Flyer, having landed in Dayton, Ohio, the birthplace of flight. Images courtesy of Solar Impulse

Borschberg and Solar Impulse alternate pilot, initiator and chairman Bertrand Piccard were greeted at Dayton by Stephen and Amanda Wright, great grandniece and great grandnephew of the pioneering Wright brothers.

Amanda Wright gave the duo a model of the Wright Flyer, the first plane to successfully fly.

“It was a dream to come here, and we made it, but Mother Nature decides, and it was meant to be,” Borschberg said to Ms Wright, referring to how changes in weather have shaped the route Solar Impulse 2 has taken.

“Your arrival was beautiful – you were overhead for an hour and a half, everybody could see you,” Piccard told Borschberg.

In addition to bringing the team to the most important place in aviation history, the flight also occurred exactly 89 years after the Spirit of St Louis became the first plane to fly non-stop from New York to Paris, manned by pioneer Charles Lindbergh.

Solar Impulse has said several times that the next flight will take the plane to New York, however it is not clear if there will be a stop in between Dayton and the Big Apple.

“This 12th leg of the Round-The-World adventure has brought us one step closer to finishing the crossing of the United States,” Solar Impulse said on its blog. “And for leg 13? Our team at the Monaco Mission Control Center is trying to identify a weather window.”

New York will be the final stop before the plane crosses the Atlantic to an as-yet-unconfirmed location in Europe.

The journey will be one of the longest the team has yet faced, meaning good weather will be essential to ensure the safety of the pilot.