Magnetic Solar Energy Discovery Could Lead to Solar Energy Breakthrough
Magnetic Solar Energy Discovery
A magnetic solar energy discovery could lead to an increase in the amount of solar energy harvested from sunlight. The common photovoltaic (PV) solar cells that are widely used to generate electricity from sunlight are only capturing a portion of the available light energy being produced by the sun. That is because sunlight has both magnetic and electric components, and current solar cell technology only utilizes the electric portion of sunlight energy. The magnetic portion of sunlight had been dismissed by scientists as too weak to be of any use for solar energy electricity generation. However, a recent breakthrough by a professor at the University of Michigan could one day lead to a whole new generation of solar energy devices that capture the magnetic portion of sunlight and turn it into useful electricity energy.
Magnetic Solar Energy Discovery | Surprising Magnetic Light Discovery
Stephen Rand, a professor in the departments of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Physics and Applied Physics at the University of Michigan has been investigating the magnetic component of light to determine whether it can be used to produce useful energy. During his investigations, Professor Rand noticed something unexpected when light was passed through a strongly insulating material, its normally weak magnetic output was multiplied greatly and a relatively strong magnetic field was generated. The magnetic field that Professor Rand measured was 100 million times stronger than previously expected from light per the laws that govern physics, which will likely surprise his fellow physicists. A magnetic field of the strength observed by Professor Rand is theoretically strong enough to produce the kind of large magnetic effect that can be used for electricity generation.
Professor Rand admits the results of his experiments will shock many physicists since magnetic fields associated with light of the strength he measured are not accounted for in currently accepted physical theories and equations that physicists use. Professor Rand stated, "You could stare at the equations of motion all day and you will not see this possibility. We've all been taught that this doesn't happen. It's a very odd interaction. That's why it's been overlooked for more than 100 years."
The enhanced magnetic effect is the result of something physicists call "optical rectification", which is what light does when it enters certain materials, such as the strongly insulating material Professor Rand studied. In fact, common photovoltaic (PV) solar cells use a type of optical rectification when sunlight passes into crystalline materials such as crystalline silicon, which produces voltage from the solar cells that is used as an electricity source.
The question must be asked, what is actually going on in the strongly insulating material that produces a magnetic field that is 100 million times stronger than previously expected? It appears that Professor Rand, with the help of his Ph.D. candidate student, William Fisher, has discovered a new type of optical rectification that was previously unknown. In certain materials, it was observed that the magnetic field of light was strong enough to bend electric charges into a 'C' shape. William Fisher described, "It turns out that the magnetic field starts curving the electrons into a C-shape and they move forward a little each time. That C-shape of charge motion generates both an electric dipole and a magnetic dipole. If we can set up many of these in a row in a long fiber, we can make a huge voltage and by extracting that voltage, we can use it as a power source."
There is a major limitation to developing this new type of optical rectification into a magnetically driven solar cell that provides useful energy. In order to produce the enhanced magnetic field effect, light must be shined on an insulator such as glass. However, glass requires a much more intense light to produce this effect than sunlight provides, on the order of 10 million watts per square centimeter, whereas sunlight only produces approximately 0.012 watts per square centimeter of light.
The solution to this problem of achieving the required light intensity from sunlight may lie in technologies currently used with concentrated solar cells, which magnify the intensity of incoming sunlight to increase the output of concentrated solar cells. Also, using novel materials, Professor Rand and his student are hoping that the necessary light intensity required for the effect to occur can be reduced to much lower levels, which would require less light intensity to produce the enhanced magnetic field effect. They postulate that the sunlight conversion efficiency of their enhanced magnetic field solar cells could perhaps reach ten (10) percent, which is equivalent to current photovoltaic (PV) solar cell conversion rates.
Mr. Fisher stated, "In our most recent paper, we show that incoherent light like sunlight is theoretically almost as effective in producing charge separation as laser light is. To manufacture modern solar cells, you have to do extensive semiconductor processing. All we would need are lenses to focus the light and a fiber to guide it. Glass works for both. It's already made in bulk, and it doesn't require as much processing. Transparent ceramics might be even better."
They postulate that the cost of magnetic solar power cells could be much lower than current photovoltaic (PV) solar cells, since magnetic solar power cells would use non-rare materials like amorphous silicon (glass) that don't rely on expensive manufacturing processes like semiconductor fabrication.
In the near term, Professor Rand and his student will experiment with producing electricity from intensified sunlight and from laser light. Afterwards, they are planning to look into novel materials to utilize the magnetic portion of sunlight at lower intensities.
The team is in the process of patenting their discovery, since there is potential that their discovery may someday be commercialized. However, they caution that a practical application of utilizing the magnetic portion of sunlight to generate electricity is still years, if not decades from being realized.
Professor Rand and his Ph.D. candidate student, William Fisher, have published their discoveries in apaper is titled “Optically-induced charge separation and terahertz emission inunbiased dielectrics” that can be downloaded here (http://www.eecs.umich.edu/~scr/FisherJAP2011.pdf). Regardless of the commercial viability of their magnetic solar energy discovery, they have made a significant contribution to the field of physics.
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