A Moment of Science

Nanotubes, Solar Cells, And Renewable Energy

Solar panels can only capture so much sunlight and produce a limited amount of electricity. What are the other options for sustainable energy?

Solar panel square

Photo: Elizabeth Beers (Flickr)

Solar panels are just one option in alternative energy.

In a world using up fossil fuels at an ever growing rate, renewable energy sources like solar power are becoming more and more valuable.

The Problem With Solar Panels

But solar panels have a problem. A single panel can only capture so much sunlight and produce a limited amount of electricity.

That’s why large solar farms consist of thousands and thousands of panels. And the more panels you need to generate power, the more expensive solar energy becomes.

Which is why scientists are eager to find ways to make solar panels more powerful, and more efficient.

Nanotechnology

One of the most intriguing and promising approaches is through nanotechnology. More specifically, researchers around the world are experimenting with carbon nanotubes–basically carbon atoms arranged in hollow tubes.

Scientists at MIT have built nanotubes that act like tiny antennas, or funnels, that can concentrate sunlight on a solar cell.

Regular solar cells capture only a relatively small portion of the light that hits them, mainly because the materials used to build the cells naturally absorb some wavelengths of light and reflect others.

Carbon Nanotubes Capture And Funnel Light

Carbon nanotubes specially designed to capture and funnel as much light as possible at all wavelengths could solve that problem. Nanotube antennas could result in solar cells that are much smaller but also more powerful than today’s commercial cells.

At the moment, though, such cells are only a theoretical possibility. Researchers need to work out dozens of technical details before nanotube powered solar cells become a reality.

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