Monday, January 16, 2012

The Nature of Design

A UK design blogger sheds some light on why solar technology is mimicking biology.

Cal Poly SLO: Organic Solar CellsImage by DrWurm via Flickr
Organic Solar Cells
By guest blogger Selma Karlsdottir.

I believe that the advanced technology of solar cells that mimic the process of plants to draw energy from the sun, otherwise known as photosynthesis, first came to my attention about one year ago. I had already been doing a thorough study on solar cells, and where and when it makes sense to implement them. And the one dominant downside to solar cells as we know them is clearly that they need sunlight. They can store the energy that is produced to some degree, but not enough to make it a reliable source of energy in a country such as England, which is famous for its fish and chips, Mary Poppins, Oliver Twist and of course, cloudy skies and plenty of rainfall. So I thought to myself that there should be a way for solar cells to be more effective. And one answer lies in biomimicry.

Before I start diving into the amazing world of biomimicry, I’d like to ask one question: Why am I so interested in solar cells? Why not just use wind turbines during those cloudy days?

Solar cells (and chimney) on Konjščica pasture...Image via Wikipedia
Standard rooftop panel
England has plenty of wind so that would make sense. But wind turbines can also make noise and take up a lot of space. So far, solar cells have had the capability of blending in slightly more than wind turbines. And they do look pretty cool as roof tiles, completely replacing any other type of roof material. But solar cells are also fantastic in a smaller scale. Small solar cells have been used for decades in hand calculators. Using solar cells to charge mobile devices rather than plug in electricity is not just beneficial for our beloved blue globe, but it also makes the user mobile and flexible not having to rely on electricity from the grid, never mind spending valuable vacation time figuring out one of those universal plug converters (find your favorite solar chargers here).

Nature has spent billions of years creating and refining its creations. Everything nature has ever created that has been left untouched by the more intelligent species, homo sapiens, exists in perfect harmony. And we have so much to learn from our wisest teacher mother earth. Using what she is teaching us and translating that knowledge into smart technology, simply put, is amazing.

This brings me back to biomimicry. The term is a broad one, as the mimicry or imitation of nature, comes in many forms and many fields of expertise. By the study of nano-scale morphology of living organisms, many applications have been developed through multidisciplinary collaboration between biologists, chemists, bioengineers, nanotechnologists, and material scientists. The imitation of processes, systems and models in nature is used in fields such as architecture, industrial design and engineering to mention a few.

The Millennium Tech prize, which is awarded each year by Finland’s Technology Academy, was given to the Switzerland based chemist Michael Grätzel in September 2010 for inventing solar cells that mimic photosynthesis.

Panels are now being manufactured by an Australian company under the name ‘Dyesol Cells’. The panels are low cost and low in energy consumption during the manufacturing process, and can be turned into electricity-generating windows, mobile solar devices and others.

monokristalline SolarzelleImage via Wikipedia
Solar cell Production
The technology behind the ‘Dyesol Cells’ is inspired directly from the process of plants absorbing sunlight through their green pigment chlorophyll and converting carbon dioxide, gas and water into carbohydrates (glucose) and oxygen, which in turn provides for the energy the plant needs to survive and grow. The solar cells similarly make use of a dye analogous to chlorophyll, for instance dye squeezed from berries, which absorbs sunlight and generates electrons and converts light into energy. And the energy that the cells produce can be used in both micro or macro scale - DC power storage which is integrated into the products, AC power to Smart Meter and the grid, which can be combined with thermal energy, as portable power or distributed power.

The cells are tolerable to partial shading and can be used all day. They can be transparent, rigid or curved and bendable and integrated into glass or metal. The advantages are many and the technology is proven stable. So why is using nature as a source of inspiration such a growing trend? Plainly stated, nature has a tried, tested and approved it all. Nature is the most experienced biologist, scientist and inventor of all times. We can certainly learn one or two things and use the wisdom to make our everyday life even better.

English: A Image that shows how DSC is being a...Image via Wikipedia
Dyesol diagram

A company named Semprius, which won a “NextGen” grant from the Department of Energy in 2007, unveiled in July of 2011 an ultra tiny solar cell half the size of a pinhead, that in combination with powerful but inexpensive lenses can concentrate sunlight more than 11,000 times and convert it to electricity. This has nothing to do with imitating nature, but it reveals another trend that has been strong for some time, which is the capability of going smaller and smaller in scale, and thus making technologies easier to produce, distribute, and use, in a wide variety of products. Large scale production is made easy while leaving a small ecological footprint in exchange for a micro scaled product with a multiplied efficiency.

But it is not only micro solar cells that are now making headlines. In my next article I would like to explore some other still unusual energy producers which can become specifically advantageous for mobile devices such as mobile phones and radio transmitters: electromagnetic energy tapped from the air around us or from sound waves that is transmitted into energy to charge our phones as we speak.

Selma Karlsdottir is a design professional based in London who blogs on various aspects of sustainable design, often from a cutting edge technical perspective. This article was originally published on her main blog Eco Tech.

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