Put On Your Sunglasses: Solar Energy’s Bright New Future

Information originally published by Northwestern University Initiative for Sustainability and Energy, an EcoMyths Alliance Partner.

The future looks bright to researchers and scientists working with solar energy at the Initiative for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern. Imagine being able to save serious money on your energy bill simply by installing shingles painted with photovoltaic paint instead of those clunky panels on your roof. Or being able to charge your phone with solar energy from your solar-power-saving briefcase. Those possibilities are just what researchers at ISEN are striving for with their current work with Argonne National Laboratories.

In 2009, Northwestern teamed up with Argonne to form ANSER (Argonne-Northwestern Solar Energy Research), a partnership whose mission is to explore the future of flexible plastics in the solar power industry. The innovative new material they’ve developed uses eco-friendly ink rather than traditional photovoltaic panels, which makes it much easier and cheaper to produce. In a recent Northwestern Magazine article, chemistry and materials science and engineering professor Tobin Marks discussed the new technology saying, “You could easily put them on the roof of your home, or maybe you could manufacture roofing shingles with the solar cell already built into them…Imagine in the Third World, where a plastic solar cell could be made in a village printing plant with the right kinds of inks, and it could be used to cover people’s roofs.”

Of course, increasing the ratio of alternative energy sources used in the global power supply is one key way to begin to mitigate climate change. And the way ANSER sees it, flexible plastic solar panels could help us achieve big goals in a short time frame because of their versatility. This inexpensive, yet highly efficient ink could function on everything from roof shingles to jackets to briefcases—even your purse could charge the personal electronics within it using solar power.

ANSER is also researching ways to use catalysts to separate water into its elements, which could create a liquid solar fuel similar to gasoline.

“That way you can use today’s infrastructure and nothing changes, but you have a renewable source, which essentially recycles the carbon that you’re putting into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels,” said Northwestern professor Michael Walieski in the same article.

All in all, this means just one small team of dedicated people have created a technology that has great potential as a cleaner, greener energy source. And yes, that would be another giant piece of evidence that our recent EcoMyth conclusion is correct: every one of us really can make a difference (even if we can’t all be Northwestern rocket scientists, those little changes do add up.)