Each and every day, the sun bathes the earth with far more energy than all the living things upon it, humans included, could possibly use up. While plants soak up a small fraction of that power and use it to grow and maintain themselves, the vast majority has, for billions of years, been wasted. Even if the sun’s energy might contribute to the warmth that so many living things need to survive themselves, a great deal more simply gets reflected back out into space.
Solar panels that incorporate photovoltaic materials represent a highly productive break from this longstanding status quo. When photons of the right frequency fall upon such panels, they are absorbed and transformed into electrons. When enough light collects on the surface of a particular panel, a considerable amount of the energy the sun directs at that space can be turned into electric current.
For many years, though, the efficiency of this process remained somewhat lacking, at least as embodied in particular panels and assemblies. Over time, however, researchers and designers have become better about at transforming more of the light-borne energy that falls onto particular panels into electric power. They have typically done so both by extending the range of light frequencies that various panels can collect and address and by boosting the overall efficiency with which they carry out the transformation.
In recent years, another appealing possibility has come into view. Instead of only taking light of suitable frequencies and transforming it into current, researchers have been pursuing ways of turning targeted spectra of light into others that are more easily harnessed. Those looking for more information can read a full report there, but the basic idea is that this approach could prove to be one of the most fruitful and productive of all.
This might allow, for example, formerly useless infrared radiation to be turned into visible light which can then be converted directly into electricity. While there is still a great deal of progress to be made in the field, this fundamentally new approach to a longstanding problem seems to many to be especially rich with potential. The right advances, in fact, could help harness a great deal more of the energy the sun so regularly provides to the earth.