MTU researcher works on generating heat from solar panels

The big question in the solar energy industry is how to make solar energy systems affordable and efficient for the average consumer.

Seems like we get to talk a lot about how researchers at Michigan Tech in Houghton are addressing that question, and the latest project has a lot of promise, too.

One of the issues with efficiency in solar cells is how to capture both heat and electricity, such as for a solar hot water system. Typically, photovoltaic thermal energy systems haven't been as good at generating heat as they are electricity. In fact, they work at low temperatures for the best efficiency, keeping silicon cells cool.

Joshua Pearce, associate professor of materials science and engineering, decided to try a different kind of silicon in photovoltaic cells, along with collaborators Kunal Girotra from ThinSilicon in California and Michael Pathak and Stephen Harrison from Queen's University, Canada.

The thin-film silicon he's using is lighter, more flexible, cheaper and has less of a carbon footprint to manufacture. But, electric efficiency was a big problem, until the team came up with a process that included heating the cells and making them thicker. The result is solar panels that take up less room on a roof and produce more heat energy.

"People could have thermal and electrical energy in a neat little package," Pearce says. "They give you the most usable solar energy per square foot of roof space."

Writer: Sam Eggleston
Source: Joshua Pearce, Michigan Technological University

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