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A Solar Panel That Becomes More Efficient When You Play It Some Tunes

The solar cell prefers pop and rock; classical, not so much. But it’s not just a gimmick–there’s a practical application.

A Solar Panel That Becomes More Efficient When You Play It Some Tunes
[Image via Shutterstock]

Experts say that listening to music helps boost creativity, IQ, and a host of other human performance factors. Apparently a little music can also boost the performance of technology as well.

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A team of U.K. researchers has created a small solar cell that performs better when being serenaded by music, ranging from Ray Charles to KC and the Sunshine Band.

The finding stems from the longer-term work of Steve Dunn, a nanomaterials researcher at Queen Mary’s School of Engineering and Materials Science. He works on harnessing the energy of acoustic vibrations and producing devices that spit out electricity (you can watch a video that explains the process here). The general physics principle is called the piezoelectric effect.

Dunn’s team created a device that, like a tiny hairbrush, contains billions of zinc oxide nanorods that can generate electricity when bent or vibrated by sounds. Working with James Durrant, a photochemist at Imperial College London, Dunn then created small solar cells by coating the nanorods with an active polymer. Next, they experimented with playing the solar cells a wide range of music and sounds.

The songs, especially pop and rock, were good at boosting the cells’ efficiency–much better than simple sounds. “We tried playing music instead of dull flat sounds, as this helped us explore the effect of different pitches. The biggest difference we found was when we played pop music rather than classical, which we now realize is because our acoustic solar cells respond best to the higher-pitched sounds present in pop music,” Durrant said.

All in all, the vibrations from the tunes boosted the energy that the solar cells produced, making them 40% more efficient compared to normal.

The researchers imagine the discovery could be used to power devices that are exposed to sounds and vibrations anyway, such as the insides of cars, highway billboards, and air conditioning units. Only sound levels as low as 75 decibels were enough to have a significant effect on the cell performance, which is about the level of typical roadside noise or an office printer.

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The research is published in the journal Advanced Materials this month.

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About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire.

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