Conductive solar paint provides glimpse into the future of solar energy

What if powering your home with renewable energy was as simple and inexpensive as repainting the exterior of your house? The development of a new paint with solar conductive properties indicates that solar paint may well be the future of the solar energy industry. Developed at the University of Notre Dame, the paint is made from conductive nanoparticles that react with the sun’s rays to create energy.

While the paint still has a long path of research and development ahead before it can be sold to the public as a viable energy option, researchers are hopeful that the paint will eventually be able to power a home and its appliances. The paint, which has the same appearance as conventional exterior house paint, currently conducts electricity at a low rate, but researchers plan to further develop the product so that it can conduct the same amount of energy as solar panels.

“The best light-to-energy conversion efficiency we’ve reached so far is 1 percent, which is well behind the usual 10 to 15 percent efficiency of commercial silicon solar cells. But this paint can be made cheaply and in large quantities. If we can improve the efficiency somewhat, we may be able to make a real difference in meeting energy needs in the future,” Notre Dame professor and researcher Prashant Kamat said.

The paint, which the team of Notre Dame researchers has named “Sun-Believable”, is a paste made from a mixture of water, alcohol, dye and nanoparticles of titanium dioxide, which are coated with cadmium selenide or cadmium sulfide. Cadmium-based materials, such as cadmium telluride, are currently used in some solar panels.

The cost of powering a home entirely through solar panels is estimated around $16,000, but solar panels are becoming more of a financially feasible option for many homeowners. The decreasing cost of solar panels has made solar technology more accessible to homeowners in recent years, while government incentives have encouraged consumers to invest in solar panels for their homes. The solar industry, which reported a strong growth in 2010, has grown even more significantly over the past year, particularly in the third quarter of 2011, which recorded a 140 percent growth rate compared to the third quarter of 2010.

Homeowners installed more than 1,000 megawatts of solar energy in their residences this year, up from 887 megawatts installed in 2010. Jobs in the solar industry in the United States now number over 100,000, twice the number of solar industry employees in 2009. Solar installations in the third quarter of this year alone numbered 449, half of the production for the whole of 2010 and more than the total installations in 2009. Google announced last month that it will invest $94 million in four northern California solar energy plants, further fueling the state’s booming solar industry. The state’s solar sector employs more than 25,000 people – more than one-fourth of the nation’s solar industry workers – and continues to grow in size and capacity.

Kamat said, “By incorporating power-producing nanoparticles, called quantum dots, into a spreadable compound, we’ve made a one-coat solar paint that can be applied to any conductive surface without special equipment.”

When applied, the paint would turn any surface into a solar energy conductor, allowing the conductive cells contained in the paint to harness energy from the sun’s rays. The inexpensive price of making the paint means that the paint would likely be sold to the public at a low cost, making solar energy accessible to virtually everyone. Researchers are also determined to improve the stability of the paint, which currently needs to be stored in dark areas in order to remain stable.

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