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"Solar Nexus" -- The Discovery Files

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See-through solar materials that can be applied to windows represent a massive source of untapped energy and could harvest as much power as bigger, bulkier rooftop solar units. Engineering researchers at Michigan State University argue that widespread use of such highly transparent solar applications, together with the rooftop units, could nearly meet U.S. electricity demand and drastically reduce the use of fossil fuels.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

Power windows.

I'm Bob Karson with the Discovery Files, from the National Science Foundation.

Solar power. Right now, it meets about 1.5 percent of the electricity demands in the U.S. and around the globe. It could do a lot more.

That's where a team led by engineering researchers at Michigan State University comes in -- (Sound effect: window closes) through the window. You see, they've developed a way of "catching rays" with clear possibilities: see-through solar collection panels. Made of a thin transparent material, they can be placed on windows without disrupting the view. The material contains organic molecules developed by the team to absorb only invisible wavelengths of sunlight -- energy that then gets converted to electricity.

Look out your window. You're peering through a small part of the estimated 75 billion square feet of glass surface area in the U.S. Now imagine turning that surface area into virtually invisible solar cells on your home or an entire skyscraper. Even on car windows and cell phones.

Today this new technology can produce only about a third the energy of conventional solar panels. Its efficiency could conceivably be tripled, the team says, to equal that of rooftop units. With the many more surfaces where you can install these inexpensive panels, the potential for see-through solar is something you can, see through.

And something to daydream about the next time a ray of sunlight streams through your window.

"The discovery files" covers projects funded by the government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research -- brought to you, by you! Learn more at or on our podcast.

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