Trinity researchers improve solar panel efficiency, reducing costs and carbon footprint

The cooling mechanism developed could make green energy a more viable solution

Trinity researchers from the School of Physics and the School of Engineering have been granted funding to further develop innovative cooling technology for solar panels. 

Solar panels provide a greener alternative to other energy sources with much higher carbon footprints, such as fossil fuels. However, for solar technology to become widespread and viable, scientists must tackle the issue of their inefficiency. 

A solar photovoltaic cell, or solar panel, works by converting light to electricity and heat. Unfortunately, current solar panel designs convert only 20% of the solar energy to electricity, with the remainder being lost as heat. As a result of this heat being generated, rooftop solar panels in Ireland can reach temperatures of up to 60°C.  

In addition to this, as the solar panel heats up, it becomes less efficient. Solar panels create higher yields of electricity at lower temperatures. This means that, somewhat counterintuitively, solar panels are less efficient in countries with greater amounts of sunshine. These higher temperatures in warmer regions can reduce electricity output by up to 30%. 

To solve this flaw in solar panel operation Professor David McCloskey, Ussher Assistant Professor of the Science of Energy and Energy Systems, and Professor Séamus O’Shaughnessy, Ussher Assistant Professor in Energy & Sustainable International Development, have developed an air-based cooling device that can be fitted at the back of solar panels. 

The cooling technology can reduce the temperature of the solar panel by up to 20oC. This results in solar panels with greater lifetimes, between 20-40 years longer than those without the system. It also increases energy output by 10%, which is significant when implemented on a large scale. 

This means solar panels will last longer for the average consumer and give them a greater energy payout to their homes. The technology could be a step towards moving Ireland, and the wider globe, towards greener energy solutions, with efficiencies rivaling those of fossil fuels. 

On the technology, Professor McCloskey said:  

“Our solution uses natural cooling from the surrounding air and does not require additional energy, water, or chemicals. We have demonstrated that the technology works and we are now exploring techniques to scale up production in a cost-effective manner. Once developed this technology will be of interest to both large-scale solar farm developers and also private households whose occupants want to increase return on their solar panel investment.”    

The research is funded by Science Foundation Ireland and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade as part of the SFI Zero Emissions Challenge Future Innovator Prize. As a winner of this prize, the research must be aimed at reducing CO2 emissions in developing countries. The team has partnered with Concern Worldwide and the Phelan Energy group to bring this technology to countries where it is most needed. 

 

Lucy Fitzsimmons

Lucy Fitzsimmons is the current Deputy SciTech Editor of Trinity News, and a Senior Fresh Chemical Sciences student.