Critics of the renewable sector love to point out the unreliability of Solar technology, reiterating how solar is only capable of generating power during the perfect summer's day, and only if you happen live in California or the Sahara. Well, not for long apparently. While the project it still in its infancy, researchers from Qingdao, China, have developed a solar cell that is capable of generating power from rainfall as well as sunlight. But how?
Well, the answer lies in the material Graphene, a form of carbon which is constructed from ‘planar’ sheets only one atom thick. Graphene was discovered over a decade ago when researchers experimented with creating a honeycombed sheet of carbon atoms and were surprised by the material’s versatility. It was then discovered that Graphene generates an electric charge when exposed to salt water, naturally researchers are now looking to apply this discovery to new technology.
Each panel is coated with this wonder material, creating a uniform layer across the cell. Graphene is able to generate electricity from water due to the fact that rain is filled with organic compounds made up of elements such as ammonium, calcium and sodium, which act as salts. When rain comes into contact with electrically enriched graphene, the chemicals form ions. The graphene then develops a negative charge, while the water droplets develop a positive one. In simple terms, this generates electricity, which is then stored by the panel.
Unfortunately, you won't be seeing all-weather solar panels hitting the market just yet. The team at Qingdao were only able to achieve an energy efficiency of 6.5% using industry standard dye-sensitized solar cells. When compared to the latest sunny-only solar cells that can capture up to 22% of the sun's energy it is obvious there is a long road ahead before we are able to produce reliable energy all year long. The researchers also stated that they were only able to capture rain generated electricity in the range of ‘hundreds of microvolts’. However, this research was only meant to lay the foundations for further research, the research paper stating itself that, “The new concept can guide the design of advanced all-weather solar cells.”
Hopefully products like this help create a vision of a sustainable future, and more importantly ward off any ‘anti-solar’ lobbyists, which are often interchangeable with fossil fuel lobbyists. Only recently a paper was released trying to discredit the potential of solar as a solution to the global energy crisis, as well as the impending effects of climate change. The Utah State University’s Institute of Political Economy (IPE) released the Reliability of Renewable Energy: Solar, in which it criticised the renewable economy, saying that it was only staying afloat due to government subsidy. It is both shortsighted and hypocritical to attack government subsidies. We often forget that subsidies are there for a reason, but furthermore, the fuel industry has received preferential treatment and subsidy for decades. The renewable industry offers a real solution to both the world’s energy needs while reducing our overall CO2 emissions.
There is no doubt that there is a definite need for all-weather solar, and a huge commercial opportunity for anyone out there interested in renewable R&D projects. For example, the UK was hit with dreary skies and rainy days for 42% of the year. Or in terms of how much potential energy is being wasted, there was 1330mm of Rainfall in 2012 alone. Hopefully, we will see more and more R&D success stories that enable further growth and reliability in the renewable sector.