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These solar panels don’t need the sun to produce energy

Cloudy days pose a real problem for solar panels. But a new innovation can convert UV light to energy—even if the sun isn’t shining.

These solar panels don’t need the sun to produce energy
[Photo: courtesy James Dyson Foundation]
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When it comes to renewable energy, solar panels are great. Their efficiency has improved and their costs have dropped to the point where it would be feasible to move every U.S. home to solar power and save money in the process.

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But then the clouds roll in. The intermittency of the skies has been one of the major challenges for this otherwise valuable renewable energy source. Though we can’t control cloud cover, a new invention has found a way to work around the inconsistency of solar energy by harvesting unseen ultraviolet light that’s present no matter the weather. It could soon be turning the windows and walls of buildings into a rich new source of electricity.

Carvey Ehren Maigue [Photo: courtesy James Dyson Foundation]
The concept is called AuREUS (which stands for Aurora Renewable Energy and UV Sequestration), and it was invented by Carvey Ehren Maigue, an electrical engineering student in the Philippines. It involves a combination of organic luminescent particles that absorb UV light and convert it to visible light, and a solar film that then converts that visible light into energy. “It’s similar to how we breathe in oxygen and we exhale carbon dioxide,” Maigue says. “It takes in ultraviolet light, and then after some time it would shed it as visible light.”

Produced in the form of a resin similar to what’s used in bulletproof glass, this light-harvesting technology can be used to create windows, walls, or any other part of a building’s exterior, evolving the traditional rooftop solar array. The invention was recently selected as a winner of the first James Dyson Sustainability Award, which comes with a $35,000 prize.

Maigue developed AuREUS by turning fruit and vegetable crop waste into a luminescent material that can convert UV light. Mixing that with a resin and lining it with a solar film, he created glass-like panels that can produce a surprising amount of electricity. His prototype is a single 3-by-2-foot panel that he installed in the window in his apartment. Tinted lime green but transparent, the test panel can generate enough wattage per day to charge two phones. Scaled up, he says, these panels could enable buildings to produce all their own electricity.

[Photo: courtesy James Dyson Foundation]
Maigue says the flexibility of the material will allow designers to integrate electricity-creating forms with almost any design. “We can create curved panels, more intricate shapes for the walls, or the design they want without suffering lesser efficiency,” he says. “That’s one of the ways we can allow architects and engineers to express themselves more and be more artistic.”

The project was selected for the award by James Dyson, the venerable inventor and one of Fast Company’s Most Creative People, and a panel of engineers. AuREUS stood out among the roughly 1,800 entrants because it has such clear commercial potential for solving a global challenge, according to Tom Crawford, Dyson’s global director of sustainability and one of the judges. “I think it will be a massive game changer for the industry,” Crawford says. “I would expect solar companies to be knocking at his door.”

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Maigue says the next step is to create a pilot project to use the panels at a larger scale. The first building-scale installation will be at a small medical clinic on the remote island of Jomalig, a four-hour boat ride from the Philippine mainland. One of Maigue’s friends is the island’s doctor, and the clinic is often left without power during storms. “The impact of it would be to allow critical infrastructure such as clinics to operate even if there is no electricity on the island’s grid,” Maigue says.

He’s also hoping the technology can be used in a wider array of products. The resin can be used in threads, for example, and Maigue says there’s the possibility of using it to create power-generating fabrics. He believes taking solar power from large-scale solar farms and rooftop arrays and putting it in people’s windows, on their walls, or even in their clothes can be a way to get more people to understand the potential of renewable energy.

“If we can democratize renewable energy, we can bring it both physically closer to people as well as psychologically closer,” Maigue says. “It would give them a sense of access to it, that they are closer to it, that they don’t have to be large institutions that have the capability to harvest solar energy with their rooftops.”