Are Transparent Solar Panels Real?

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The technology could one day power the buildings they encompass.

Researchers at Michigan State University created transparent solar panels that have the potential to power buildings and can be retrofitted to older glass exteriors or windows.
Researchers at Michigan State University (MSU) developed a prototype of a transparent solar panel they say could one day be applied to windows and glass exteriors to provide power to buildings. Though the technology is still largely in the prototype phase as of this writing, the technology has been installed on at least one campus building.
Our team was first clued into the novel solar panels when we came across a meme shared to Facebook on April 7, 2022. It read: “A professor at Michigan State University has created the first transparent solar panel, that have the potential to power entire buildings and can be retrofitted to older glass buildings or even windows.”
A look through university news releases confirmed that the claim was true. The “solar harvesting system” employs small organic molecules held within the pane to absorb and capture wavelengths of sunlight that are invisible to the human eye, such as ultraviolet and near-infrared. This light is then guided to the edge of the plastic where it is converted into electricity through strips of photovoltaic solar cells.
A video posted by MSU showed the transparent solar-harvesting panel powering a small fan, noting that the technology works by absorbing invisible wavelengths of sunlight to convert the energy to electricity.
Development of the panels began in 2014 when a team of researchers at MSU created a “transparent luminescent solar concentrator” that could be placed over a clear surfaces to create solar energy. The technology was novel in that it was one of the first renditions that utilized transparent materials as opposed to those that were highly colored. The findings were published in the peer-reviewed journal Advanced Optical Materials.

In October 2017, MSU announced that the see-through solar materials represented a “massive source of untapped energy” that may one day “harvest as much power as bigger, bulkier rooftop solar units.” They would work by lining the exterior vertical surfaces of buildings and when used in conjunction with traditional rooftop, could help to meet U.S. electricity demand.

“Highly transparent solar cells represent the wave of the future for new solar applications,” said Richard Lunt, a professor at MSU, in a news release at the time.

“We analyzed their potential and show that by harvesting only invisible light, these devices can provide a similar electricity-generation potential as rooftop solar while providing additional functionality to enhance the efficiency of buildings, automobiles and mobile electronics.”

Eventually, the researchers hope that their technology will be incorporated into the initial design and construction of new buildings, as well as to retrofit older buildings.

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