Who says solar power requires direct sunlight? A team of Australian researchers have demonstrated that solar energy can still be harnessed long after the sun has set. This breakthrough, known as ‘night-time solar power’, could revolutionise renewable energy as we know it.

Researchers from Australia’s University of New South Wales (UNSW) have discovered a major breakthrough that could potentially extend the utility of solar power technology. The team from UNSW’s School of Photovoltaic and Renewable Energy Engineering were able to successfully generate electricity from the emission of infrared light. To produce the power, a type of semiconductor known as a thermoradiative diode was used. This device is composed of the same materials as found in night-vision goggles.

As detailed in their recently published research, the team explains that there are visible amounts of radiation that can be viewed at night by using thermal imaging cameras. During the day sunlight hits the Earth and warms the planet, and during the night that same energy is radiated back into the cold, void of space. The researchers were able to view the heat radiating back into the atmosphere and convert the energy into a different form (electricity), similar to the way that traditional solar panels convert solar energy into power. The latter process is known as Photovoltaics, or the direct conversion of warm sunlight into electricity, and similarly this new thermoradiative process generates electricity by emitting infrared light into a colder environment.

Does this mean that solar panels are now doubly effective? Not quite.

Though the team were successful in producing electricity after the sun had set, it was a fraction of what can be produced during daylight hours. In fact, the output was around 100,000 times less, though the researchers are confident that this could be improved upon in future.

The Future Is Bright For Night-Time Solar

This technology could be used to power bionic devices, such as artificial hearts… or even remove the need for batteries in certain devices.

One only has to reflect upon the continued improvement of solar panel technology, and the increasing level of power it yields, to be excited at this revolutionary research. Remember that the first solar panels were no smash hit either. Back in 1954 a team of engineers at Bell Labs ran the initial demonstration of a silicon solar cell. That device recorded efficiency levels of 2%, a tiny amount compared to today’s modern-day cells which convert 23% of sunlight into usable electricity. Though it may be some time before this new process reaches the same levels of efficacy, the prospective industrial and commercial applications are tantalising. Roofs and other surfaces could be optimised to generate renewable energy round the clock. And as lead researcher Associate Professor Ned Ekins-Daukes suggested, “this technology could be used to power bionic devices, such as artificial hearts… or even remove the need for batteries in certain devices.”

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