The brainiacs at Oxford are making screen printed organic solar cells. These printed cells use non-toxic materials that are readily available, so they have a smaller carbon footprint. This new kind of thin film technology can be applied directly to glass and can be up to 50% cheaper. The panels come in different colours, so instead of putting a solar power system on your roof, you could have a beautiful stained glass window that produces energy.
Not to be outdone, researchers from MIT are printing solar panels onto flexible materials, including toilet paper. Unless the sun does actually shine out of your unmentionables, it is unlikely that toilet paper will be added to solar arrays. It does, however, highlight the versatility of new techniques which may see users printing solar cells on their own office printers.
How Sunlight Saves Disaster Victims
When natural disasters strike, the most desperate needs are for shelter, food and water. The disruption of electric services hamper relief efforts, expose victims to harsh environmental conditions and prevent hospitals and catering facilities from providing much-needed assistance to the population.
Water is the most urgent need and the team at MIT’s Space and Robotics Lab has come up with a prototype for a solar powered desalination unit. The device utilizes photovoltaic cells to power reverse osmosis pumps. These push water through a permeable membrane to remove impurities, salt and other minerals from sea water, and produce 80 gallons of fresh drinking water a day. The team plans to build a larger unit capable of increasing output to 1 000 liters a day. This unit can be used in disaster relief operations and also in areas which are remote enough to make provisions of water and electricity logistically challenging. A C-130 Cargo plane can transport up to a dozen of the larger units, providing water to 10 000 people.
In the past, diesel generators have been used to provide temporary electricity to disaster survivors, but these pose several problems. Generators are cumbersome and difficult to transport, especially to areas where roads, rail and bridges have been damaged. Generators require fossil fuel and produce large amounts of noise and air pollution. Improper use by inexperienced personnel has resulted in burns, fuel spills, fires, explosions and even asphyxiation. Transporting incendiary fuels during a disaster can be difficult at best.
Solar provides a good alternative. However, PV cells are fragile and break easily, making transport problematic. They also require experienced technicians to orient and assemble the panels, wiring and inverter while monitoring loads on the system. Enter stage left; the portable solar generator. These systems expedite the establishment of services to disaster stricken areas. Portable solar generators are self-contained and new developments in battery technology (deep cycle silicone batteries) ensure that they can operate for extended time periods, in extreme weather conditions, and unlike lead-acid batteries, they are environmentally friendly. If the terrain permits transportation, the trailer can charge while traveling. Alternatively, it can be airlifted to remote or cut-off areas. The trailer also provides room to transport supplies and provisions. Once it arrives on the scene, the portable solar generator is easy to set up and requires no expertise to run up to 3, 500 watt loads.