There are few things that are more important than the environment. After all, if we can drink water, breathe air or grow food, there is really not much left for us here on Earth. While it is true that one day we will travel to the stars, that isn’t an option today, or any time in the foreseeable future.
At this point, the major threat to the environment is the way we generate our energy.
From, massive emissions of greenhouse gases from fossil fuels to the more recent concerns about ground water contamination from hydraulic fracking, the world needs a truly green way to supply its energy needs.
One of the technologies that has been touted as a potential solution is right above our heads: the Sun. Who can resist the idea of everyone on the planet getting access to free, unlimited energy?
Modern photo-voltaic solar cells date back to the 1950’s and were mostly used to power satellites and provide energy for space missions.
But as anyone with a pool will tell you, using these high-tech panels to produce electricity isn’t the only way to harness the power of our celestial provider. A fairly relatively low-tech way to gather energy is so install a solar-thermal heater that absorbs the heat from sunlight and conducts it into the pool water which can then be pumped to wherever you may need it.
Using the heat from sunlight is nothing new. Humanity has been harnessing sunlight for thousands of years and green plants have been doing it for 100’s of millions of years through photosynthesis.
But light, as you learned in high-school physics class, is an electromagnetic wave. This means that it has 2 components: an electrical wave and a magnetic wave that travel together and conduct energy.
All of the solar energy that we use, whether you are a toaster, a plant or a pool uses the electrical portion of light to either produce an electrical charge across a semiconductor or as a heat source.
But researchers at a the University of Michigan have found a way to harness the second component of light and draw energy directly from the magnetic field generated by sunlight.
For over 100 years scientists thought that the effects of the magnetic field generated by sunlight were too weak. But Stephen Rand, a professor in the departments of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Physics and Applied Physics, has found that at the right intensity light can be shown through a non-conductive material and generate magnetic effects that are 100 million times stronger than previously expected.
Rand says, “This could lead to a new kind of solar cell without semiconductors and without absorption to produce charge separation. In solar cells, the light goes into a material, gets absorbed and creates heat. Here, we expect to have a very low heat load. Instead of the light being absorbed, energy is stored in the magnetic moment. Intense magnetization can be induced by intense light and then it is ultimately capable of providing a capacitive power source.”
Solar cells are cheaper now than ever before, but they are still use expensive semiconductors bring the cost significantly higher then producing energy from fossil fuels. Rand hopes that his discovery will be a world game changer.
“All we would need are lenses to focus the light and a fiber to guide it. Glass works for both. It’s already made in bulk, and it doesn’t require as much processing. Transparent ceramics might be even better” Fisher said.
In experiments this summer, the researchers will work on harnessing this power with laser light, and then with sunlight.
Noosphere Ventures is encouraged by the work done by these scientists to shed new light on old problems. We are watching the energy sector closely and look forward to new innovations like these that will help us all breathe a little easier and make our environment a little cleaner.