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Huge fields of glistening solar panels or rooftops adorned with shiny black rectangles are what usually springs to mind when photovoltaics and solar panels are mentioned. But as technology advances, photovoltaics are being incorporated into numerous items in pioneering ways.
Every day, the streets are bombarded with the sun’s rays and it is foolish not to make use of it. Something as ordinary as streetlights could be powered by the sun; the sun charges the batteries by day which then power light emitting diodes (LEDs) by night. In San Diego, such LEDs are also linked to smart sensors to alert drivers to open parking spots or help first responders in emergency situations. And the Highland Council in Scotland in Inverness has implemented solar-powered bins. An internal compactor powered solely by a solar panel squashes rubbish, increasing the litter capacity over eight times that of a normal bin.
Technology could also be powered or charged using photovoltaics. For example, mobile phones, GPS trackers, tablets or laptops connected to a tablet-size photovoltaic panel via USB can fully charge in a matter of hours. City Square in Obrenovac, Belgrade goes one step further by providing a larger-scale mobile phone charging station powered by the sun: the Strawberry Energy Project is a public resting place with a wrap-around bench and solar panel sheltered top.
There are also solar powered wireless keyboards that charge via natural or artificial light, LED umbrellas that charge during the day and provide patio lighting by night and fountains that function with a solar-cell powered rather than an electrically powered pump – photovoltaics are making their way into everyday items offering an alternative to plugging into the mains.
A somewhat more innovative use of photovoltaics is in solar fabrics, a normal textile fabric with solar threads woven in which can generate electricity when convenient. Such a fabric could be used in backpacks for charging mobile phones and gadgets while out hiking for example it may even be possible that our clothing could one day be laced with such threads to enable us to charge devices on the go.
Camping enthusiasts could also benefit from tents constructed from solar fabrics capable of harvesting the sun’s energy by day and illuminating the tent and charging mobile phones and other technology by night. In fact, mobile phone network provider Orange, constructed a solar-powered tent at Glastonbury in 2009 to help festival-goers charge their essentials gadgets. The tent – which had specially coated solar threads weaved into its conventional fabric – had ports to charge around 600 mobile phones and offered free internet access.
Tents like this offer a revolutionary new way of capturing the sun’s energy and represent the future of camping, but they could also have potential in disaster relief, military and rescue operations providing power in remote areas, or those without any power at all, as well as for the camping enthusiast.
Polymers with photovoltaic properties can be dissolved in solvents to create a paint or coating that could be applied to any surface. Although still in its infancy, research suggests that such a paint would function much like large photovoltaic solar collectors, employing thin film nanoparticles as solar conductors instead of silicon. Such a paint or coating would be inexpensive and incredibly versatile, capable of being applied from anything from outer walls to cars.
Solar-powered cars have been under consideration, but a solar-powered plane is an incredibly innovative way to make use of photovoltaics and, believe it or not, is more than just a pipedream. Solar Impulse is a Swiss-built aircraft featuring 12,000 panels on its wings. Solar Impulse made its maiden voyage in December 2009 and proved so successful that the next generation Si2 attempted to fly around the world in 2015.
So, there you have it – photovoltaics are finding novel new uses, from powering planes to providing charging hotspots for mobile phones. In an age where we look to move away from conventional fuels towards renewable energy, future innovation in photovoltaics is certainly making the future brighter.
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