Harnessing Solar Power without Cells?

Home solar panels

Home solar power is a beautiful thing. An already sound investment, state and federal incentives continue to bring costs down every day. Most homeowners are surprised at what they can save on new systems (and if you’re curious what it would cost you, you can get an estimate here).

But large, utility-scale solar has a lot of growing to do. Many critics of industrial solar argue that costs of manufacturing are still too high for solar energy to compete with coal, nuclear or natural gas on a national level.

University of Michigan researchers, however, may have found an alternative way to harness photonic energy from the sun, and although the technology may not be perfected or deployed for years, it has given environmentalists new hope that clean, reliable energy sources are not so far off.

Professor Stephen Rand described the university’s latest discovery in a recent press release. He explained that the power of magnetic energy may be the key to realizing solar’s full potential. Essentially, they learned that light passing through non-conductive materials creates magnetic fields over 100 million times stronger than previous theories had predicted.

Says Rand, this level of magnetic energy can generate similar power to that of traditional electricity. It is a discovery that could lead to the development of new technology without the need for solar cells, semiconductors or a number of other key components used in today’s solar panels.

The team also cautions that sunlight must focus on these cells at an end intensity of 10 million watts/square centimeter. Sunlight isn’t this intense on its own, but the university and their partners are working on alternative materials that could generate the magnetic energy at lower levels of focus intensity.

It could take years before the tech is fully refined and the new solar cells are deployed in any number, and these cells will most likely be installed first in military facilities, government buildings, and universities before they become available in American homes.

Are solar cells truly an efficient way to replace power lines? Time (and research) will tell.

Photo by Rob Baxter via Flickr

Posted on April 18 in Solar Research by .

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