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.
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.
In January 2015, the Finnish VTT Technical Centre introduced decorative organic photovoltaic cells (OPV), which can be inexpensively mass-produced, and which can easily be incorporated into the design of any home. These cells are capable of capturing energy from interior lighting and generate enough power to run small devices and sensors.
Since the OPVs they introduced were shaped like leaves, it is only logical that VTT has now come up with a tree like structure to hold them. And this energy-harvesting tree can generate electricity from more than just the sun.
VTT has gone a step further in that the OPV leaves they designed are actually a multi-source energy harvesting system, meaning that they are capable of converting not just light into usable electricity, but also temperature differences and vibrations caused by wind. This was achieved by fitting each leaf with a multi-power convertor, which makes it possible for energy from all these various sources to be converted into electricity.
The energy-harvesting tree consists of a 3D-printed body made of wood-based biomaterials. It’s not the prettiest fake tree you can buy, but it is very useful. According to VTT, these trees can be placed either indoors or outside, and are infinitely replicable, due to the individual convertors and being mass-produced by a 3D printer. This manufacture process also makes them infinitely scalable.
The present version of the energy-harvesting tree can only produce sufficient energy to power a mobile phone. However, the company already envisions “forests” of such trees providing energy on a much wider and larger scale.
It’s definitely nice to see solar tech being brought closer to the end consumer by making it easier to incorporate it into homes, as well as cheaper and prettier. I could easily envision one of these energy-harvesting trees in my living room, more so if the design was further perfected.
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