Shape-Shifting Solar Cells

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The wider adoption of solar cells is largely being stalled by their cost. That’s why a lot of new research in this field has been focused on making solar cells more affordable. And now a group of engineers at MIT and Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) have made a breakthrough.

They’ve created a 3D printed material, which is able to change shape when heated or cooled, and then return to it’s original form on it’s own. Among the many applications of such a material it could also be used as the turning mechanism for solar cells, which would allow them to effortlessly capture more solar energy.

The 3D printed material they created is capable of remembering its original shape, and always returning to it when certain key conditions are met. In other words, it can be bent, twisted, stretched and used to build complex shapes (such as a replica of a flower or the Eiffel Tower). These structures bend and stay in the new form until they are heated to between 104 to 356 degrees Fahrenheit when the material becomes rubbery and once again assumes its original shape.

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To create these structures, they used a special 3D printing method called microstereolithography, which etches patterns onto the polymers using light as they are layered. The thinner the structure the faster it reacts to temperature changes and they are actually calling this new tech 4D printing, since the changing of shape happens across the fourth dimension of time.

Designing an effective way of combining this new tech with PV cells would make them much more efficient at harvesting solar power, as well as make it possible to use solar cells in a lot more places. More efficient solar cells would also lessen the need for large battery banks.

Affordable Tiny Off-The-Grid Weekend Retreat

The firm Modern Tiny Living just unveiled a tiny home, which makes other tiny homes appear like mansions in comparison. The aptly named Nugget comes fully equipped with everything you need for a cozy weekend retreat.

The Nugget rests atop a single-axle 12 ft (3.6 m)-long trailer, and weighs 4,500 lbs (2,040 kg). It’s floorspace is just 102 sq ft (9.4 sq m), which is tinier then even the tiniest competition. However, the Nugget has all one needs, including a kitchenette, a bathroom and a comfy sleeping area. They are marketing this one as a weekend retreat, which is quite accurate, since it is probably too small to be used as a full time home.

That said, they did maximize on the available space. There is a large sink in the kitchen, complete with a copper faucet, while the countertop is actually a hickory butcher block. There is a small fridge, but no stove, since the owner plans to use one of the portable camping ones. The bathroom is separated from the main living area by a pocket door, and is equipped with a composting toilet and a shower. The sleeping area doubles as the lounge, and features a good-sized bed.

The Nugget is completely independent of the grid, and is fitted with a rooftop mounted solar power array, which is connected to an inverter and a battery system. They also installed a 100 gal (378 l) fresh water tank and pump, which provides all the necessary water. A propane heater is used to heat both the interior as well as the water.

The home is also reasonably well insulated, with the ceiling and floors having an insulation rating of R-28, and the walls a rating of R-21, but the home is not really suitable for use in extreme climates.

To go with it’s size, the Nugget’s price is also small. It is currently being sold for $36,000.

Tiny Home That’s Easy to Take on The Road

The company Rocky Mountain Tiny Houses of Colorado have built another great tiny home. This one bears the odd name Ol’ Berthoud Blue, and it was commissioned by a client who had tried to build their own tiny home, but found it too demanding.

The home features an interesting layout, with lots of space allocated to the bedroom and bathroom, while it was also constructed with frequent travelling in mind.

Ol’ Berthoud Blue was built atop a 24 ft (7.3 m)-long trailer. The front entrance opens into the spacious living area, which takes up most of the ground floor. This area also houses the kitchen, which features lots of counter space, a full-size fridge, a propane three-burner stove and a sink. There is also a dining table for two. The sofa in the living area can be pulled out into a 6 ft (1.8 m)-long guest bed.

The bathroom is just off the kitchen and is large enough to fit an ALFI cedar bathtub, as well as a sink and composting toilet. In an interesting design choice, one has to go through the bathroom to access the winding staircase that leads to the sleeping loft. The latter is quite spacious, and can serve as a lounge as well. They installed lots of windows in this area, which lets in plenty of natural light. The home also features a second loft, which can be used for storage.

Some of the cabinetry was custom made, while some was purchased from IKEA. Since the owners intend to travel a lot, most of the storage areas have rods or other obstructions to prevent things from falling. The tiny home gets its power via a standard RV hookup, though they plan to add a solar power system in the future. A mini-split system takes care of the heating and cooling needs.

The home cost roughly $87,000 to build.

Sustainable Airport Terminal Built in Norway

There is nothing very sustainable about air travel, but the airport terminals can be, as has now been proven by the architects of Nordic – Office of Architecture who designed and built a new terminal at Norway’s Oslo Airport. The new terminal is equipped with many sustainable and energy-efficient features and was built using recycled materials.

The new extension to the airport is basically a 984 ft (300 m)-long structure and it provides an additional floorspace of 1,237,849 sq ft (115,000 sq m). It was built using primarily recycled and natural materials, such as recycled steel, curved glulam beams, as well as concrete mixed with volcanic ash. The latter is thought to be more sustainable than regular cement, since lower temperatures are needed to mix it, and it is said to have a longer expected lifespan. The cladding and flooring is mostly oak.

The terminal is insulated to Passive House standards, while they also achieved the BREEAM “Excellent” sustainability rating, which is a first for an airport building. They will also be storing the snow collected off the runways in winter and using it to cool the building in the summer. The curved shape of the terminal also maximizes solar heat gain, while the generous glazing lets in ample amounts of natural daylight and eliminates the need for artificial lighting. Oslo only gets about 6 hours of daylight in the winter months, so I suppose artificial lighting will be needed then. As for heating, the terminal utilizes low-carbon technologies like district heating and natural thermal energy.

Overall, this is a great example of large scale sustainable architecture, which needs to become the norm going forward if we wish to preserve the planet.

Tesla Announces Sleek New Solar Panels

Late last year, Tesla unveiled a range of solar panels that were actually roof tiles as well. The price was prohibitive though, since there was no way to install them on an existing roof without some expensive and time-consuming renovations. But this is no longer the case.
The company has now added a new product to their line-up: solar panels that are so sleek and thin that they will make any roof look good.

The new Tesla solar panels are to be made by Gigafactory 2, a Tesla factory located in Buffalo, New York. They will be exclusive to Tesla, and are intended to be integrated with their Powerwall energy storage units to provide an uninterrupted 24-hour a day supply of clean energy.

The mounting hardware of these new 325-watt panels is hidden, while the integrated front skirt allows them to blend with the roof on which they are installed almost seamlessly. According to Tesla, these panels not only meet but also exceed industry standards when it comes to durability and lifespan, though no data was provided to support this. According to Elecktrek, other 325-watt panels that Panasonic currently produces have an efficiency rate of 21.67%. The new Tesla panels probably have a similar efficiency, or perhaps an even slightly better one.

The company will start producing these new panels in the summer of 2017. They will be used exclusively for all future residential solar installations by the company, as well as for replacement of any other existing third party solar panel installations. No word on pricing yet, though those interested can also get a custom quote for their home via the Tesla website.