Research explores solution for electricity generation

Lucas Erasmus and Prof Hendrik Swart (right) are working on a joint project with Ghent University to find an attractive solution to address the energy demands of buildings, electric motor vehicles, and mobile electronics. Photo: Leonie Bolleurs

With a constant increase in the price of electricity, any innovation to replace this necessity in our daily lives is welcome.

The University of the Free State (UFS), whose vision is supported by an element of innovation, welcomes the recent agreement between its Department of Physics and Ghent University.

Not only will this research – which aims to develop the materials necessary for transparent solar panels – enlarge the international research footprint of the UFS, but it is also an attractive solution to address the energy demands of buildings, electric motor vehicles, and mobile electronics without affecting their appearance.

According to Prof. Hendrik Swart, Head of the Department of Physics at the UFS, the agreement between the two universities entails a joint doctoral degree in which both universities will supervise the project and the awarding of the doctorate. The student, Lucas Erasmus, will conduct research at both institutions.

The idea with the research is to develop glass that is transparent to visible light, just like the glass you find in the windows of buildings, motor vehicles, and mobile electronic devices. However, by incorporating the right phosphor materials inside the glass, the light from the sun that is invisible to the human eye (ultraviolet and infrared light) can be collected, converted, and concentrated to the sides of the glass panel where solar panels can be mounted.

This invisible light can then be used to generate electricity to power these buildings, vehicles, and electronic devices. The invention is therefore a type of transparent solar panel.

This technology can be implemented in the building environment to meet the energy demands of the people inside the buildings.

The technology is also good news for the 4.7 billion cell phone users in the world, as it can be implemented in the screens of cell phones, where the sun or the ambient light of a room can be used to power the device without affecting its appearance.

Another possible application is in electric cars, where the windows can be used to help power the vehicle. Erasmus added: “We are also looking at implementing this idea into hard, durable plastics that can act as a replacement for zinc roofs.”

“This will allow visible light to enter housing, and the invisible light can then be used to generate electricity. The device also concentrates the light from a large area to the small area on the sides where the solar panels are placed; therefore, reducing the number of solar panels needed and, in return, reducing the cost.”

The technology will take about a decade to implement. “This study is currently ongoing, and we are experimenting and testing different materials in order to optimise the device in the laboratory. After this, it needs to be up scaled in order to test it in the field. It is truly the technology of the future,” said Erasmus.