What do elementary schools and the evolution of computers have in common? Well, the production of solar energy – how you may ask? Let me explain further. If you think about how solar energy is gathered it is through a solar cell made of metals, plastics, and glass.
Remember back in elementary school when you learned about photosynthesis? How for millions of years, plants have used this process to change the sunlight into energy. Well, scientists at Georgia Tech College of Engineering got to thinking; if it works for the plants why can't it work for us. According to an article by Marshall Honoroff in the TechNewsDaily, "Scientists recently developed an organic substitute that processes sunlight as a plant does. Advancing this technology could aid the evolution of solar power as a sustainable energy strategy."
These researchers experimented with organic compounds made from wood (which of course, trees are a renewable resource). They call the (wood) cellulose compounds (CNs). Honoroff continues, "CNs – a fancy way of saying "miniscule plant parts" – achieve reasonable solar efficiency and lend themselves to cheap production on a mass scale. Laboratory tests also suggest that simple solvents can break down CNs into their constituent components, allowing old, spent solar cells to make a simple and inexpensive transition into new ones."
"Organic solar cells must be recyclable," Bernard Kippelen, a Georgia Tech professor and research team lead, said in a statement. "Otherwise we are simply solving one problem – less dependence on fossil fuels – while creating another, a technology that produces energy from renewable sources but is not disposable at the end of its lifecycle."
This all sounds great – a solar cell that is made of renewable resource materials so that when the cell finally wears out it does not become a problem in a landfill. But, does it do what it is supposed to do, does it make energy? It seems that is the drawback – at least at this point. Honoroff reports, "Kippelen writes in a research paper that less recyclable organic solar cells have achieved efficiencies as high as 10.6 percent (i.e., the cell can effectively process 10.6 percent of the energy absorbed from sunlight). In order to be useful in a domestic or industrial setting, a solar cell needs an efficiency of at least 5 percent." At this point, Kippelen's organic solar cells made from wood cellulose are 2.7 percent efficient. So, yes, they are still working on the efficiency piece of these new and creative solar cells.
Here is what the elementary school (and learning about photosynthesis) and the evolution of computers has in common – do you know how the pocket calculator started out? I had a friend who worked at Boeing Industries in Wichita, Kansas (yes, the airplane builders). He told me that when they began working on inventing computers in the 1960's, one computer would take up the entire space of a very, very large room. He went on to say that this one computer could do no more than what a typical pocket calculator can do today. It took time, hard work, and tenacity to make their ideas work; to make a computer become more efficient, more feasible, and more usable.
Page 2 of 2 - Lynn Youngblood is a Kansas City-based naturalist who writes for Gatehouse Media.