In therecent past, there has been a worldwide push to generate a greater proportionof our energy resources from renewable sources. This is largely due to theburning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas; which release carbondioxide emissions into the atmosphere. This excess carbon dioxide remains inthe atmosphere and causes an increase in the greenhouse effect, resulting inthe overall surface temperature of the planet increasing. The effects of thisinclude an increase in the rate of natural disasters and an acceleration in themelting of polar ice, causing sea levels to rise globally. Solar energy is now oneof the main sources of renewable energy today, with the UK producing moreenergy from solar sources than coal in the period April – September 2016;accounting for 5.
2% of energy demand in this period. 1 Furthermore,innovation in solar energy continues today, with ideas such as wearable solartechnology currently under development. 2 So bearing this in mind,how far will solar technology advance in the future and how much will it bevalued by humanity?Eventhough the energy from the Sun has been utilised for millennia, photovoltaictechnology was only discovered in the 19th century. In 1839, EdmondBecquerel, was the first to observe the photovoltaic effect when he produced acurrent by submerging platinum or gold plates in a solution and exposing it tosolar radiation. 3 Much later, in the 1870s, much work was doneinvestigating the photoconductive properties of selenium, eventually leading tothe creation of the first photovoltaic solar cell from selenium by CharlesFritts in 1884. This solar cell, however innovative, was extremely inefficient– boasting an efficiency of around 1%. 4 After this point though,the development of solar technology stalled due to a newly discovered abundanceof fossil fuels in the early 20th century; this was a criticaldevelopment because previously many people had been fearful of the depletion oflimited fossil fuel supplies. 5 Eventually, fears about thelimited supply of fossil fuels came to the fore due to the 1973 and 1979 oiland energy crises which significantly increased the price of oil in particular– leading to an increased focus on renewable energy sources including solarpower.
56 Over the following years photovoltaic technologybecame gradually more efficient, making it a viable source of power for manycountries, leading to endorsements and programs led by governments worldwide,providing the funding required for further research in the field.Modernphotovoltaic solar cells are made of commonly used semiconductors such assilicon. The silicon semiconductor is doped so that one part is positivelycharged, p-type, and one part is negatively charged, n-type, containing moreelectrons – this creates an electric field. When photons of a certain frequencyare incident on the negative part of the silicon, through one on oneinteractions they cause electrons to be released from the surface; this isknown as the photoelectric effect. The free electrons then accelerate due tothe electric field towards the positively charged surface. When the twosurfaces are connected through a conductor, a circuit is produced.
The flow of electronsfrom one silicon semiconductor to the other is the electrical current. This formof solar cell is the basic form of the solar cells used today, which have beenimproved on for many decades. 7Mostsolar cells used commercially or privately today have an average efficiency of10-15%. 7 At this moment in time however, the most efficient solarcell, a multi junction concentrator solar cell, has a recorded efficiency of46.0%. 8 This level of efficiency though is only possible in themore experimental solar technology though and is expensive and therefore is veryunlikely to become mainstream in the near future.
As for improvements to commercialsolar energy production today, many photovoltaic power stations now produce concentratedsolar power. This is achieved by using multiple mirrors and lenses to concentratea large area of sunlight onto a smaller area of solar cells; meaning that thesame amount of solar energy can be produced in a smaller area, reducing costs.New solar arrays are also being created with dual and single axis trackers fortheir panels. This allows the panels to be constantly perpendicular to theincoming sunlight in either one or two dimensions depending on which one isused. This allows the panels to be at maximum energy production throughout theentire day; improving efficiencyAs forthe future, we are constantly developing new and innovative ways to producesolar energy other than the generic solar panels used on buildings and the photovoltaicpower stations that exist currently. For example, there have been advancementsin the development of bio-solar cells, which use a type of bacteria calledcyanobacteria to allow easier powering of wireless devices.
This willeventually be useful in scenarios in which solar cells are placed in more andmore remote areas, becoming difficult to connect the array to an external powersource. 9 Another idea that could potentially revolutionise thesolar industry is being worked on by the Japanese Space Agency’s Space SolarPower Systems project. It involves sending solar panels into near Earth orbit,which will then produce energy which is transmitted down to a base stationthrough microwave radiation. 9 Solar cells in orbit have thepossibility to produce more energy than those on Earth as they have access tohigher concentration sunlight which has not been diluted by the Earth’satmosphere. Also, if this development succeeds, it could mean that the potentialarea to house solar cells would increase dramatically. Even more extraordinaryis the idea of energy capturing trees that store solar and kinetic wind energyin their leaves. They will most likely be 3D printed from a wood like biomaterialand should be able to survive both indoors and outdoors; prototypes arecurrently being created in Finland at the VTT research centre. 9 Effortsare also being made to improve efficiency in many different ways.
One of theseis to harness the infrared part of the electromagnetic spectrum, which passes straightthrough our current solar panels. Utilising this energy could increaseefficiency by up to 30%. An alternative method of increasing efficiency inphotovoltaics is common in all forms of technology – size.
IBM are attemptingto make individual solar cells up to ten times smaller thus allowing the productionof up to ten times more energy while using the same amount of space. 9As these innovations make obvious, there will be no lack of ideas for thecapture of solar and other clean energies to carry us into the future.Toconclude, solar technology has become a major source of our energy and willcontinue to increase its share of the industry in the years to come.Developments to the efficiency and size of photovoltaic solar cells willcontinue to make it more affordable and a better investment, allowing theaverage consumer to take advantage of this renewable and clean resource.
In thelong term, solar power is projected to become one of, if not the main source ofenergy on Earth. In 2014, the International Energy Agency reassessed its long-termpredictions for the future of photovoltaic energy production. They predictedthat by 2050, solar energy would make up 16% of global energy production.However, such is the exponential behaviour in the increase in solarinstallations, that this projection is already outdated, with it lookingincreasingly likely that solar energy will make up 20% of global energyproduction by 2027. 9 This is a huge change in prediction and ispartly due to the rapid development of the solar industry in East Asiancountries such as China; who, in 2016, even though already having almost twicethe energy production capacity of the second largest solar producer Japan,doubled their own capacity. 10 As for the even more distant future,solar energy currently is and continue to be a major factor in spaceexploration; especially in the future colonisation of other planets and satellitesin the solar system, that will not have the means for other forms of energyproduction.
As the demand for mass energy production increases worldwide, itseems likely that the solar industry will be able to meet it; with a seeminglyendless cycle of evolution and innovation in its future.