On a cold, cloudy, rainy day, the last source of power you might turn to is solar. But, that could soon change.
“We’re working on developing new solar systems that will capture light on days where there is little or no sun,” Phil Boudjouk, a professor of chemistry at North Dakota State University, said.
A team of researchers at North Dakota State University recently received a multi-million dollar federal research award to solve that problem, by developing new materials that can absorb solar energy in low light conditions.
“Our base material is silicone and we are trying to make new combinations of silicone with other elements on the periodic table,” Boudjouk said. “The sun is the source of all of our energy. And when it shines on silicone, if the silicone is properly affixed, you can have energy converted from the sun to electrical energy and then we can plug in and use it.”
Boudjouk and the rest of the team are testing all sorts of combinations to see what could work best. These new materials are tested under different light conditions to see how much electricity they generate.
“It’s going to be about efficiency and if you can go so far from a cloudy day, can you operate at night when it’s just moonlight,” he explained.
The more energy created with solar, the more energy to go around.
A report published in September 2021 by the U.S. Department of Energy estimates solar could account for as much as 40 percent of the U.S. electricity supply by 2035.
“Solar is part of a 21st century grid,” Gregory Whetstone, the president and CEO of the American Council on Renewable Energy, said. “The solar sector has been booming, the technology has continued to improve, cost has continued to go down.”
Whetstone said solar is just one tool in the renewable energy toolbox, and adding elements like energy storage to solar can help make it an even more attractive option.
“When you add energy storage to the mix, it really presents a tremendous opportunity to have that energy there when we need it,” he said.
“I think an important part of this though, long term, is that there be a battery system,” Boudjouk said. “You can have some of it siphoned off into a battery so that even at night, pitch black, you can access the energy that originally came from the sun.”
While the team’s research is primarily for the Department of Defense, Boudjouk expects to see commercial success within a decade for those days that are a little less bright.
“If we’re successful, it should have a big impact in the consumer market,” he said.