Scientists have discovered that solar panels can be designed to perform considerably better when exposed to sounds like certain kinds of music. Why is this, and how could this knowledge help advance green energy?
Researchers at the Imperial College London, working with a team from Queen Mary University and publishing this month in the journal Advanced Materials, have demonstrated that music and sounds pitched at around ambient noise level — say, the sound of an office printer — could significantly increase the output of specially designed solar panels. Interestingly, it’s move over Beethoven and say hello to One Direction: these solar panels prefer their pop and rock over high brow classical.
The Science Behind the Solar Panel and Sound Link
Researchers wanted to discover whether this effect could be harnessed to improve the efficiency and output of solar panels. As such, they manufactured — or more accurately grew — zinc oxide nanorods, which are a piezoelectric material, and then covered them with what is known as an active polymer that can convert sunlight into electricity. The new piezoelectric solar panel was born.
The scientists then exposed the panels to pressure, which in this case was sounds of various pitches. What they found was that high pitched sounds, which are often the mainstay of pop and rock music, increased the output of the solar panels by up to 40%. Classical music, which predominantly has a range of sounds at a lower pitch, also increased the output but not quite as much.
“We thought the soundwaves, which produce random fluctuations, would cancel each other out and so didn’t expect to see any significant overall effect on the power output,” James Durrant, of Imperial’s Department of Chemistry, is quoted as saying. “The key for us was that not only that the random fluctuations from the sound didn’t cancel each other out, but also that some frequencies of sound seemed really to amplify the solar cell output – so that the increase in power was a remarkably big effect considering how little sound energy we put in.”
The Real World Implications of the Sound and Solar Panel Link
Admittedly, bombarding your solar panels with Miley Cirus every day might start to annoy — well, everyone. The good news is, the researchers believe that you don’t actually need music to realize this effect. They discovered that sound levels going as low as 75 decibels, which is roughly the same as general roadside noise, is enough to increase the output of solar cells that have the piezoelectric material built in.
While the efficiency of solar panels has increased enough to make the technology a viable and worthwhile alternative energy for helping supply the home, the efficiency on the whole hasn’t been enough for many wider applications. However, with this finding the scientists hope that a range of technologies could be improved upon to make solar power more widespread. That’s not just for larger items like buses, trains and potentially cars, but even items like laptops and maybe one day, even smaller devices.
Dr. Steve Dunn, co-researcher from the Queen Mary’s School of Engineering and Materials Science, is quoted as saying, “After investigating systems for converting vibrations into electricity this is a really exciting development that shows a similar set of physical properties can also enhance the performance of a photovoltaic solar cell. The work highlights the benefits of collaboration to develop new and interesting systems and scientific understanding.”
This research is of wider benefit than just an interesting milestone in solar panel development. Green energy is unfortunately still not receiving the support it deserves from many politicians and big businesses. As such, innovation can be difficult to come by and without innovation it becomes more and more difficult to convince other businesses that they should invest, incorporate and even champion new green technology — this despite the fact that we know that green energy is desperately needed to try to undo and prevent the damage done by fossil fuels and to stave off looming energy deficiencies.
Research like this, then, helps to show that not only could the numbers add up, but that green energy in the long term could help take products in new and exciting directions that are also kinder to the environment.
Photo credit: Thinkstock.
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