Solar panel boosts efficiency four-fold

A University of Missouri engineer has developed a flexible solar sheet that captures more than 90 percent of available light – compared with the 20 percent or so achieved by most current solar panels.

He plans to make prototypes available to consumers within the next five years at a relatively low cost.

Patrick Pinhero says traditional photovoltaic (PV) methods of solar collection neglect much of the available spectrum. But, he says, he’s developed a device which can harvest industrial heat and convert it into electricity – and says it could also be used to collect solar radiation across a wider range of frequencies.

The device is essentially a thin, moldable sheet of small antennas called a nantenna. And, he says, used as a direct solar-facing device, it could collect solar irradiation in the near infrared and optical regions of the solar spectrum.

Pinhero and his team have now developed a way to extract electricity from collected heat and sunlight using special high-speed electrical circuitry.

“Our overall goal is to collect and utilize as much solar energy as is theoretically possible and bring it to the commercial market in an inexpensive package that is accessible to everyone,” he says.

“If successful, this product will put us orders of magnitudes ahead of the current solar energy technologies we have available to us today.”

As part of a rollout plan, the team is securing funding from the US Department of Energy and private investors. The second phase features an energy-harvesting device for existing industrial infrastructure, including heat-process factories and solar farms.

Within five years, the research team believes they will have a product that complements conventional PV solar panels. Because it’s a flexible film, Pinhero believes it could be incorporated into roof shingles, or be custom-made to power vehicles.