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Our energy future: Solar

BY STEPHANIE STEINBERG
Daily Staff Reporter
Published April 13, 2009

Solar cells are among the most well-known alternative sources of energy. But Engineering Prof. Max Shtein is working to bring solar technology into more homes by making solar cells more conducive to daily life — like weaving them into textiles.

Chris Dzombak/Daily
An array of solar panels sits atop the Dana building on Central Campus. In total, the panels can generate over 30 kilowatt-hours of electricity for the building.

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Shtein said this change will allow people to consume energy in eco-friendly ways when using everyday products.

“Going to the store and buying clothes, for example, is a lot more familiar to a lot more people than installing a solar cell on the roof of their house,” he said.

Shtein, an assistant professor of materials science and engineering, and a team of researchers are developing a system to create solar cells out of fibers that can be woven into textiles.

“Most of those textiles are actually dyed using organic dyes where the molecular structure is very similar to the structure of the molecules we would use to make organic-based solar cells,” Shtein said.

Shtein has brainstormed many uses for his discovery including carbon fiber airplanes with solar cells interwoven into the plane’s structure and coats and tents made out of solar cell fibers. He said a tent that can effectively generate electricity from the power of the sun can solve many of the problems caused by natural disasters.

“There’s a lot of instances where you have disaster relief kind of shelters, where you want to be able to generate electricity for people to communicate, for people to purify water, to read, to do things they need to do,” Shtein said.

The solar cells applied to the fibers are very thin and add no thickness to the material. Shtein said he discovered that bundles of fibers in a textile absorb more light, making the textile more efficient at collecting energy than a regular, flat solar cell.

Solar panels are one of the most common means of obtaining solar energy. Through the use of photovoltaics, solar cells convert sunlight into electricity.

Though solar panels provide a way to capture light energy, University scientists are working on new and improved methods to harvest energy from the sun.

“The sun is a terrific energy resource for humanity in general,” said Stephen Maldonado, an assistant professor of chemistry. “The output of power that reaches the earth from the sun is several times as much energy as people use every year.”

Maldonado and his team of researchers are studying and designing systems that convert solar energy into chemical bond energy, which can be used to make electricity.

“We work with materials that are similar to what’s found in photovoltaics or the solar panels you see on people’s houses,” Maldonado said, “but those typically operate for solar to electrical energy conversion, and we’re much more interested in making systems that mimic photosynthesis in plants.”

One of the disadvantages of solar cells is that the generated electricity must be consumed immediately because it cannot be stored for long periods of time.

Maldonado said plants are good at converting solar energy into chemical bond energy for making chemical fuels. Using plants as a model, the research team hopes to devise a system that can store solar energy in chemical bonds for long-term storage — similar to how energy is currently stored in gasoline and fossil fuels.

United Solar Ovonic — based out of Rochester Hills, Mich. — is the largest producer of flexible solar cells in the United States. Flexible solar panels are sometimes more useful than regular solar panels because they can be applied to curved surfaces like dome-shaped stadiums.

On average, United Solar Ovonic sells three to four solar panels a week to customers in Michigan.