Saturday, September 13, 2008

Flexible Nanoantenna Arrays Capture Abundant Solar Energy

Researchers have devised an inexpensive way to produce plastic sheets containing billions of nanoantennas that collect heat energy generated by the sun and other sources. The technology, developed at the U.S. Department of Energy's Idaho National Laboratory, is the first step toward a solar energy collector that could be mass-produced on flexible materials.

While methods to convert the energy into usable electricity still need to be developed, the sheets could one day be manufactured as lightweight "skins" that power everything from hybrid cars to iPods with higher efficiency than traditional solar cells, say the researchers, who report their findings Aug. 13 at the American Society of Mechanical Engineers 2008 2nd International Conference on Energy Sustainability in Jacksonville, Fla. The nanoantennas also have the potential to act as cooling devices that draw waste heat from buildings or electronics without using electricity.

The nanoantennas target mid-infrared rays, which the Earth continuously radiates as heat after absorbing energy from the sun during the day. In contrast, traditional solar cells can only use visible light, rendering them idle after dark. Infrared radiation is an especially rich energy source because it also is generated by industrial processes such as coal-fired plants.

The nanoantennas are tiny gold squares or spirals set in a specially treated form of polyethylene, a material used in plastic bags. While others have successfully invented antennas that collect energy from lower-frequency regions of the electromagnetic spectrum, such as microwaves, infrared rays have proven more elusive. Part of the reason is that materials' properties change drastically at high-frequency wavelengths, Kotter says.

The researchers studied the behavior of various materials -- including gold, manganese and copper -- under infrared rays and used the resulting data to build computer models of nanoantennas. They found that with the right materials, shape and size, the simulated nanoantennas could harvest up to 92 percent of the energy at infrared wavelengths.

But more technological advances are needed before the nanoantennas can funnel their energy into usable electricity. The infrared rays create alternating currents in the nanoantennas that oscillate trillions of times per second, requiring a component called a rectifier to convert the alternating current to direct current. Today's rectifiers can't handle such high frequencies. "We need to design nanorectifiers that go with our nanoantennas," says Kotter, noting that a nanoscale rectifier would need to be about 1,000 times smaller than current commercial devices and will require new manufacturing methods. Another possibility is to develop electrical circuitry that might slow down the current to usable frequencies.
If this really can be inexpensively mass produced on flexible materials and if they can find a way to funnel the energy into usable electricity then this will be huge. I especially am interested in using them as cooling devices for computers and other electronic devices. Definitely a technology to keep your eye on.

via Eureka Alert

Update: A commenter points out this video on the technology.

3 comments:

htomfields said...

The Idaho National Laboratory has a lot of other environmentally friendly projects. The Web site is www.inl.gov but there is also a channel at YouTube.

http://www.youtube.com/user/IdahoNationalLab

I would suggest the "Motion to Energy M2E" or "Harvesting the Sun's Energy" videos.

Fat Knowledge said...

Thanks, htomfields.

R. Frist said...

If they suceeded in getting this system to work think how strange things would be.
Everything at temperatures over absolute zero emits some black body radiation. In the winter just put some of these magic antennas outside in the snow and use the power to run an electric space heater in the house. It would usher in a new world with new physical laws. One would be able to use the same energy over and over, heat to electricity and back to heat after turning a motor or lighting a lamp.

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