Climate change and other environmental issues have been a hot topic lately, with many people making the shift towards a sustainable lifestyle. As such, we’re constantly looking for alternatives to the petroleum-based energy that currently dominates our lives. And while there are several options for renewable energy sources, solar energy seems to come out on top. After all, every place on Earth receives at least some sunlight, if not a lot. But while harvesting this energy is easy, it’s not very pretty. Traditional methods of solar harvesting are large, and often clunky — in bulk they can even be an eyesore. Sustainability is all well and good, but why should we sacrifice aesthetics for it? Now, thanks to researchers at Michigan State University, we don’t have to.
When you think solar energy, you may think of fields full of high-tech solar panels glinting in the sunlight. However, many architects find it difficult to incorporate these into their buildings without making them feel clunky and inelegant. But what if creating a solar-powered home or office was as simple as installing a new set of windows? Vladimir Bulović, Miles Barr, and Richard Lunt, who have tied up with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, devised a solar cell as transparent as a piece of glass. These cells, when laid on top of a surface such as a window, can generate energy by absorbing infrared and ultraviolet light.
These transparent cells are miles apart from other attempts at the same product, which involve stretching photovoltaic cells until they were paper-thin. All of those other attempts were ultimately unsuccessful, as the end result was always opaque. The new cells circumvented the problem by utilising a different technology altogether — a transparent luminescent solar concentrator (TLSC). It uses organic salts to capture solar energy, meaning that the cell is indistinguishable from a pane of glass.
This technology isn’t entirely new, however. Opaque LSCs use a similar method to convert energy, but are usually multicoloured, with a colourful shadow. These cells have an efficiency of 7%, while the transparent version has the potential to reach 10% efficiency. These numbers may seem small, but they’re figures for just one (T)LSC. Imagine how much energy can be can be generated by using them on the windows of only one building. Now think of the possibilities if they’re used throughout a city — it’s an awe-inspiring vision.
TLSCs are great news for architects and designers, as they allow them to craft sustainable yet beautiful buildings and interiors. They’re unobtrusive and can be used on any surface. As Bulović explains, “You can have zebra stripes or elephant footprints or whatever you want underneath because the cells that sit on top are invisible.” These cells can be used beyond window panes — the future could see homes powered by picture frames, coffee tables or even glass sculptures.
Companies are already exploring this avenue with coloured LSCs, creating gorgeous walls reminiscent of stained glass, while helping sustain the building they’re installed in. Organisations such as Electric Mondrian have jumped on this trend, combining this technology with artistic expression. The company creates small solar windows inspired by the artwork of Dutch artist Piet Mondrian. The windows can generate up to 10 watts of energy and can be used to charge portable devices.
On a small scale, projects such as these are examples of how art, design, and environmental awareness intersect. They open up opportunities to experiment and create art that has a tangible impact. These can be a stepping stone to solar artwork being used on a larger scale, from office buildings to sculptures in public spaces.
While TLSCs are a technology that is only just entering the commercial market, there’s already huge potential to use it in an industrial space. As more public spaces are looking to switch to sustainable, renewable alternatives to their power supply, solar energy is fast becoming a popular option. Thanks to this shift, there’s an increased demand for aesthetically appealing alternatives to the traditional solar panel — giving rise to Building-integrated photovoltaics (BIPV).
BIPV is a trend that has started take over the facades of public spaces such as railway stations and office parks. It can take many forms, but the most common is smaller versions of traditional solar panels. Here are some ways BIPV has been used around the world.
In an effort to move towards sustainable architecture, King’s Cross Station looked to minimise its environmental impact as well as running costs. The solution was 1,392 glass laminate photovoltaic cells. These cells were attached to the roof of the building, giving it a modern look. Now, the iconic railway station not only looks good, but is doing good for the environment as well.
Hong Kong Science Park boasts state-of-the-art, high-tech infrastructure. As a structure that was built with the future in mind, its energy sources needed to be equally future-minded. As such, the facade of the campus’ first phase is fitted with solar cells that generate 198kW of energy — and that’s only the calculation from 10 buildings on campus. The design of the Hong Kong Science Park shows that designing for the future means protecting the future as well.
When Korea decided to enter the BIPV space, the Samsung Institute of Engineering and Construction Technology (SIECT) seemed like a good place to start. After all, what better way to study an emerging technology than to study it on campus? Every aspect of design was taken into account while installing these cells, even ensuring that they would provide shade to the building in the summer. In the end, the experiment proved quite successful, with the cells providing up to 10% of the building’s electricity on a typical July day.
As construction with TLSCs becomes more feasible in the future, we can expect them to fit right into the BIPV space — an eye-catching alternative to traditional BIPV methods.
As we progress towards new, more sustainable forms of energy, we open all-new avenues of sustainable design. And nowhere is this clearer than in the innovation of solar technology that makes it easier to generate energy in subtle, elegant ways. So whether you’re looking at science, technology, or design, there’s virtually no doubt that the future is solar.