In recent years, there have been leaps forward made in the quest to convert both customers and utility companies on the promise of solar power. Yet, until now, the one question that has plagued industry advocates for so long has been “What do we do when it’s cloudy or rainy?” If solar power is reliant on the sun, is it a wise investment for people who live in drearier climates year-round? Moreover, what is an effective response when considerations such as these are tacked onto deeper inquiries surrounding the cost, performance and long-term effectiveness of renewable energy technologies?
Though it’s possible for very bright moonlight to trigger solar panels to produce up to 0.02% of their power, for the most part, the technology is dependent upon sunlight to generate electricity. Still, solar panels don’t always totally cease to work in overcast environments — their output simply diminishes a great deal. Thus, they’re most efficient and effective in hot, arid climates where it rarely rains and the cloud cover is minimal. That leaves a large part of the globe, the northern hemisphere to be exact, facing some particularly strong energy penalties. Yet, a new technology is on the horizon that could be changing that outlook.
The Power of Nanogenerators
In an effort to help residents and businesses in these climates harness the power of solar energy, researchers from Soochow University in Taiwan have developed a hybrid solar solution that combines triboelectric nanogenerators with the solar cell’s top layer. Put simply, these nanogenerators work by changing mechanical energy into an electrical form. You may be familiar with this technology through piezoelectric mechanisms, but unlike these devices, nanogenerators leverage the static charge and friction that’s created when two dissimilar materials come into contact with one another.
The idea of layering nanogenerators onto solar panels isn’t exactly new, but the process has been refined over time. Previously, the nanogenerators were layered on top of the panel itself, which rendered the technology almost ineffective as transparency was blocked from penetrating the panel, thereby reducing the amount of electricity captured and outputted.
To remedy this issue, the researchers from Soochow University designed a nanogenerator that doesn’t simply sit on top of the solar panel, but actually doubles as the top layer of the panel itself. As a result, the new panels can retain and release energy both when it’s sunny and when rain comes into contact with the panels.
The Future Role of Graphene
While the team of developers at Soochow University have henceforth focused their all-weather solar panel efforts utilizing nanogenerators, they aren’t the only ones focused on the innovation.
Meanwhile, scholars from Yunnan Normal University and Ocean University are working to design a solution that uses aqueous graphene to serve the same purpose. When raindrops hit the graphene panels, they dissociate into ions (both negative and positive). As they interact with the graphene material, these ions create an effect known as capacitive sensing, in which they can detect and measure anything that has conductive properties or has a dielectric difference within the air. While this design is promising, there are still developments to be made on the horizon before it can be considered a viable technology on the horizon.
Moving Forward: Solar Technology and the Future
As research continues and scientists glean insights from their analyses, there will be more data generated from these developments. To successfully move forward, that data will need to be heavily reviewed to determine if either nanogenerators, graphene or any other technology is a valuable alternative to the traditional solar panel. If, at some point in the future, these solutions are proven effective, it could change the face of renewable energy forever, and open up new opportunities for residents and businesses around the globe.