Solar power

What if I told you that enough of the sun’s energy strikes the Earth every hour to power the entire planet for a full year? That would mean that if we could collect 100 per cent of the energy hitting the earth, we could collect a full day’s energy in as little as 10 seconds.

Before you call up the Nobel Prize committee and announce that you’ve solved the world’s energy problems, there are a few problems. First, you would need to entirely blanket the globe with solar panels, which would make things dark and cold, would probably kill everything and would be horrendously expensive.

Secondly, even if you decided to throw caution to the wind and cover every square metre with solar panels, there is the fact that even the best — and most expensive — solar panels on the market can only convert about 40 per cent of the solar energy they collect into electricity, with most consumer models sitting somewhere around half of that.

Thirdly, the electricity converted from solar energy in modern panels is direct current (DC), while things like light bulbs typically run on alternating current (AC). Converting DC to AC can rob as much as 20 per cent of the total electrical energy.

So, solar panels are inefficient, expensive and produce electricity in a form that isn’t good for lighting up light bulbs. You could be forgiven if a discouraged feeling is flowing over you as you read this; as it stands now, solar power hasn’t solved our energy problems, not because we don’t want it to, but because it can’t. There are companies aiming to change that.

Steve Novack of Idaho National Laboratories has come up with a printable solar panel that can convert solar energy at a rate of nearly 80 per cent. Using nanotechnology, Novack’s panels use nano-antennae to collect both visible and infrared light. Because they are printable, the panels are also cheap to produce, since they are much less labour intensive than other panels.

The only problem with Novack’s panels is that they can’t convert solar energy into electricity yet, although according to, they are currently working on affixing a tiny capacitor to each nano-antennae, which would solve both the conversion to electricity problem and the AC/DC problem.

Speaking of the AC/DC problem, if you would like to run a laptop, iPod or other electronic device that normally runs off of a battery, there is no need to convert the electricity, since many of these devices use DC current already.

Taking advantage of this property is a Canadian company called Konarka Technologies, who, along with Mario Leclerc from Laval University discovered a family of photovoltaic plastics called polycarbazoles, which Konarka Technologies used to produced flexible, light weight and cheap-to-make solar panels.

Currently the technology is being incorporated into everything from handbags that charge your phone to sunshades that can keep your laptop powered.

While not enough to solve our energy problems, incorporating solar panels into everyday things accomplishes two goals. First, it makes charging devices more convenient, and second, it serves to make people more comfortable with solar power in more than just calculators and garden lights, which is a good thing for any new technology.