Quantum dots may be key to turning windows into photovoltaics
But that also highlights solar’s weakness: we have to install it after the infrastructure is in place, and that installation adds considerably to its cost. Now, some researchers have come up with some hardware that could allow photovoltaics to be incorporated into a basic building component: windows. The solar windows would filter out a small chunk of the solar spectrum and convert roughly a third of it to electricity.
As you’re probably aware, photovoltaic hardware has to absorb light in order to work, and a typical silicon panel appears black. So, to put any of that hardware (and its supporting wiring) into a window that doesn’t block the view is rather challenging. One option is to use materials that only capture a part of the solar spectrum, but these tend to leave the light that enters the building with a distinctive tint.
The new hardware takes a very different approach. The entire window is filled with a diffuse cloud of quantum dots that absorb almost all of the solar spectrum. As a result, the “glass” portion of things simply dims the light passing through the window slightly. (The quantum dots are actually embedded in a transparent polymer, but that could be embedded in or coat glass.) The end result is what optics people call a neutral density filter, something often used in photography. In fact, tests with the glass show that the light it transmits meets the highest standards for indoor lighting.
Of course, simply absorbing the light doesn’t help generate electricity. And, in fact, the quantum dots aren’t used to generate the electricity. Instead, the authors generated quantum dots made of copper, indium, and selenium, covered in a layer of zinc sulfide. (The authors note that there are no toxic metals involved here.) These dots absorb light across a broad band of spectrum, but re-emit it at a specific wavelength in the infrared. The polymer they’re embedded in acts as a waveguide to take many of the photons to the thin edge of the glass.
And here’s where things get interesting: the wavelength of infrared the quantum dots emit happens to be very efficiently absorbed by a silicon photovoltaic device. So, if you simply place these devices along the edges of the glass, they’ll be fed a steady diet of photons.
The authors model the device’s behavior and find that nearly half the infrared photons end up being fed the photovoltaic devices (equal amounts get converted to heat or escape the window entirely). It’s notable that the devices are small, though (about 12cm squares)—larger panes would presumably allow even more photons to escape.
The authors tested a few of the devices, one that filtered out 20 percent of the sunlight and one that only captured 10 percent. The low-level filter sent about one percent of the incident light to the sides, while the darker one sent over three percent.
There will be losses in the conversion to electricity as well, so this isn’t going to come close to competing with a dedicated panel on a sunny roof. Which is fine, because it’s simply not meant to. Any visit to a major city will serve as a good reminder that we’re regularly building giant walls of glass that currently reflect vast amounts of sunlight, blinding or baking (or both!) the city’s inhabitants on a sunny day. If we could cheaply harvest a bit of that instead, we’re ahead of the game.