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Maybe taking a cue from 3M’s Light Pipe, researchers at Georgia Tech say they can now directly channel solar energy into light bulbs using nanostructures built onto fiber optic cables.
The nanometer scale-wires greatly increase light-interactive surface area. The cables are also coated in a dye that increases their solar reactivity while the zinc nano-fibers generate electricity.
If the invention is commercialized, bundles of fibers could be saturated with sunlight using lens arrays on the roofs of buildings. The prototype of the fibers is 3.3 percent efficient. The project’s leader, professor Zong Lin Wang says the fibers need to be at least 8 percent efficient to make it to market.
The reflective coating used on the optic fibers multiplies efficiency by up to six times that of traditional film-based zinc oxide solar panels. This jump in efficiency allows for much less material to go into manufacturing while upping energy generation.
Wang and his team have produced fibers up to 20 centimeters in length, noting that “the longer the better because the longer the light can travel along the fiber, the more bounces it will make and the more it will be absorbed.”
If the fibers could be made a meter long and budled into the walls of buildings, rows of fiber would take up little more room than a gutter on the roof, providing electricity without the eyesore of flat panels or the mechanical problems of mounting and maintaining them.
So far, Wang’s team is using traditional quartz fibers. They are exploring the use of polymer fibers to keep costs low as well as an alternate titanium oxide coating that could increase efficiency. Combined with a possible lens array system, the 8 percent efficiency goal could be reached in the next couple years.
Wang doesn’t expect his fibers to replace silicon panels entirely, but he says, “to meet our energy needs, we need all the approaches we can get.”
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