By J I Thacker reporting from the front line of the climate emergency
A new prototype solar panel from the Technical Institute of Copenhagen (TIC) promises to be a game changer for renewable energy prospects.
“Hitherto, daily and seasonal intermittency has been a killer for solar panels,” says Rickard Pierrot of TIC, one of the team behind the invention. “Only an idiot would make solar a major part of energy infrastructure in a developed country. But NightShine answers the sceptics, and then some.”
Pierrot first had the idea for his invention when he read a story about diesel generators masquerading as solar panels in Spain to claim the over-generous subsidies. The scheme was only rumbled when the “solar panels” continued to feed power into the grid at night time.
“What if solar panels could work at night?” Pierrot wondered. “At first, I thought of charging enormous batteries and then using them to generate light to shine back on themselves. But that was a dumb idea.” He laughs and sips his soya latte. “You might as well just send the battery power to the grid. Why illuminate the panels?”
His next idea was a true lightbulb moment. “Traditional solar panels work by intercepting photons. Naturally the Earth is opaque to photons, so at night the panels are useless. But the Sun emits another kind of particle that shines right through the Earth, even at night: solar neutrinos.”
The only problem for the team was finding a material that would intercept a particle that is extremely reluctant to interact with any ordinary matter. “Neutrinos only interact via the weak force,” Pierrot explains, demonstrating a salt-shaker dodging around a pepper mill. “That means you have to bring the neutrino extremely close to another particle before they notice each other. But what not a lot of people know is that although neutrinos pass through the Earth, they do change on their way through – a bit like the way white light is changed into a rainbow as it passes through a triangular prism.”
Keying in on this relationship, Pierrot was able to theorise a molecular structure that would be partly opaque to neutrinos, based on the precise orientation and atomic spacing of the lattice. A materials scientist at Bologna University produced a prototype to that specification that, according to Pierrot, “caught 10% of solar neutrinos in at least one of the three flavours.” He laughs. “Personally I like vanilla!”
The NightShine solar panel is still in its testing phase at the moment. The magical material may still be a trade secret, but we know it is expensive, and the panel’s lifetime is uncertain. But Pierrot is confident he’s onto a winner. “If we can catch 10% now, in ten years we’ll be able to catch 30%. This technology has the potential to be a game-changer in the fight against climate heating. By the way, are you single? You have the most incredible blue eyes!”
Pierrot’s work was funded by, among others, the European Union Onion Growers’ Union (EUOGU).