It seems that solar panels are all the rage. Every month, there's a new development. But even with all of the advances, the panels sold today are still largely inefficient. In fact, the average panel on the market now is estimated to be around 10 to 15 percent efficient: whereas, the more expensive panels reach an efficiency level of just 25 percent.

But, what if we could double these numbers? Last week, scientists from the American Chemical Society announced an innovative approach that might just follow through on that promise.

The Current State of Affairs:

To help you understand this new development, here's a refresher course on the electromagnetic spectrum: The Sun, in a nutshell, emits radiation across nearly all portions of the spectrum—from visible light, to infrared and ultraviolet.

The electromagnetic spectrum (via Space Telescope Science Institute [STSI])

However, today's panels are only able to grab a fraction of sunlight. They mostly convert energy in the red part,  but not so much in the blue.

So, clearly there's room for improvement.

Research Sheds Light On A Solution:

In spite of the challenges, the solution is amazingly simple. By mixing and warming an edible protein with a fatty-acid from coconut, the team created a watery gel. This gel was then infused with several organic dye molecules to create a thin film. And this resulting coating can be spread over a solar cell.

When sunlight hits the film, the dye molecules absorb light in the blue-green-yellow parts of the spectrum, whilst emitting it in the more relaxed red spectrum. Consequentially, the solar panel can now receive more red light, for which it is most efficient. It effectively has attained an extra antenna—the first ever made—for the unused blue light.

By boosting the red light light to the solar cell, the power output is increased, and the panel essentially gets more bang for its buck.

Solar Panels (Modified from David Blaikie's Image via Flickr)

And to top things off, this gel—made from byproducts of coconut oil and the meat industry—is not only biodegradable, it's edible. There is no concern about it having a negative environmental impact, and it's inexpensive to produce. "It's very simple chemistry," stated Challa V. Kumar, Ph.D. of the University of Connecticut. "It can be done in the kitchen or in a remote village."

When Kumar explained the preliminary results to reporters last week, he noted that their early trials indicate that the added material doubles the effectiveness of the panels. But he concedes that with future tests, the amount of the boost will depend on the efficiency of the underlying cell; certain types of cells will benefit more than others. Also, further research could try different dye molecules and different gels.

Looking to the Future:

The industry is already taking notice and his team is working towards a commercial application, which may take years.

In the meantime, what about all of the panels already out there? Can they be retrofitted with this new material? Unfortunately, probably not. Kumar envisions integrating the coating during the manufacturing process, so only new panels could benefit as of now.

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