No, SunBOTs is not the new Westworld spin-off show, it’s actually cutting-edge technology developed to mimic the sun-seeking behaviour of sunflowers.
Why this is seen as such a breakthrough is because you might be able to say goodbye to solar panels being stuck up on a roof as your only option; you’ll be able to install them anywhere there is sunlight.
Photo by Elijah Hail
The Problem with Immovable Solar Panels
As solar or photovoltaic cells are produced more efficiently and work at a more cost-effective level, the price has become accessible as well. It’s all good news for homeowners who want lower utility bills, a fact demonstrated by the rapid expansion in solar energy provision industries here and abroad.
There is only one drawback to solar panels: they can’t move. Solar panels are placed at an angle on a rooftop or tilted on a platform in yards and fields, and they capture the sunlight when it comes in at the right slant. This hinders the full photovoltaic capabilities of a solar panel’s power production.
SunBOTs, or “Sunflower-Like Biomimetic-Omnidirectional Tracker” to the Rescue?
Xiaoshi Qian (University of California) has invented a new polymer that loves the sun and follows it diligently on its pathway across the sky. The Los Angeles team have named this innovative polymer SunBOT. What makes this polymer so unique – besides its phototropic capabilities – is the 1mm diameter “stem and flower” that makes up one SunBOT.
The stem is filled with a nanomaterial capable of turning infrared light into heat. The miniature flower on top, embedded in the stem, has been treated with a material that collects solar energy. This means that when the sun’s rays hit one side of the polymer stem, the material shrinks where it begins to heat up. This is what causes the stem to bend in the direction of the light source.
So far, tests have been run by covering a SunBOT panel in water, leaving the flowers sticking out. This was to measure the amount of light that converts into heat. It was a good way to gauge how much water vapour was generated, and then compare the results to materials without phototropic potential.
Image credit: Ximen He, Yousif Alsaid, & Yusen Zhao on Science News
The test results affirmed that SunBOTs produce 400% more water vapour than any other material.
From 24% to 90% Absorption Rate
Science News got the scoop on this exciting new material from a bioengineer at UC (not actually involved in the project). The great promise of SunBOTs in the integration of the material with solar cells. This is possibly the massive boost the ever-dynamic solar technology sector needs to see it into the 2020s.
Solar panels with current technology capture 24% of available sunlight. If a solar panel’s absorption rate was maximized with SunBOTs, this figure would rise to 90% during daylight hours. This is an increase of seismic proportions.
SunBOTs were created originally with the manipulation of a hydrogel and gold nanoparticles. Other materials, such as liquid crystalline polymers and black carbon nanoparticles also performed equally well. This gives us some indication of the technology’s promise and adaptability, as well as its potential with the use of cheaper production methods and materials.
This is the Beginning of Intelligent Energy Generation
The SunBOT development team claims in their paper that the phototropic polymer will have other applications besides being used in the solar panel optimization industry. According to the team’s paper, the breakthrough they have achieved may be useful for:
- Enhanced solar harvesters
- Smart windows
- Adaptive signal receivers
- Self-contained robotics
- Guided surgery
- Solar power sails for space travel
- Self-regulating optical devices
- Energetic emission detectors
- Telescopic, radar, and hydrophone tracking
That’s a long list, and proves that intelligent energy generation is not the only thing SunBOTs will be used for in the future.
Solar Energy Development is a Dynamic Growth Sector
Obviously, the UC isn’t the only research facility making new advancements in the solar energy sector. Also this year, MIT researchers discovered a way to utilise organic photovoltaic cells. These cells allow sunlight photons to release two electrons, instead of only one. This would effectively double solar cell output.
Perovskite solar cells, or any material with an inimitable crystal structure, would be more efficient than silicone solar cells. The construct of any solar panel could be optimised by additional photovoltaic coatings as well. This would be very advantageous to solar panel manufacturers, that would only have to alter production to cover the panels with a nanoscale coating for a 20% increase in power production function.
We have to say it here: The future of solar energy is looking decidedly sunny!