Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, Ga., have developed a new type of photovoltaic system that would allow solar collectors to be embedded in walls or located anywhere, hidden from view. Using zinc oxide nanostructures grown on optical fibers and coated with dye-sensitized solar cell material, researchers created “truly a three-dimensional solar cell,” says Zhong Lin Wang, Regents professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Materials Science and Engineering.
Dye-sensitized solar cells use a photochemical system to generate electricity and are inexpensive to make, flexible and strong, but the tradeoff is less efficient conversion to electricity than silicon-based cells. Using the nanostructure arrays in dye-sensitized solar cells would increase surface area available to collect solar energy, increase efficiency and give architects and designers new options. “Optical fiber could conduct sunlight into a building’s walls where nanostructures would convert it to electricity,” says Wang. Wang and his team have produced generators on optical fiber up to 20 centimeters long. He doesn’t expect the technology to replace silicon-based solar cells, but “this is a different way to gather power from the sun,” he says. “To meet our energy needs, we need all the approaches we can get.”