The most expensive, carefully designed, and complicated solar panels in the world operate at about 40% efficiency. That means that, for every bit of sunlight that hits the panel, only 40% of it is turned into electricity. Scientists think that this is just about as good as silicon panels can do and are now looking at ways to make it cheaper, instead of making them more efficient. But suddenly, from nowhere, comes Steven Novack of the Idaho National Laboratories with an inexpensive, fold able solar panel that may turn out to be up to 80% efficient. The trick is nanotechnology. The surface of the material is printed with miniscule nano-antennae that capture infra-red radiation, the kind that the sun puts out in abundance, and is even available at night. Television antennas absorb large wavelength energy, so in order to absorb ultra-small wavelength energy (photons) they had to create ultra-small antennas. The material is fairly simple to create, and scientists are confident that it would scale easily out of the laboratory. But there is a bit of a hitch: There’s currently no way to capture the energy being created. So while there are electrons pouring out of the nano-antennas when exposed to the sun, there is no way to capture those electrons.
But don’t worry; those geniuses in Idaho are working on that already. By putting a tiny capacitor, or AC/DC converter in the center of every tiny antenna, they think they could make this new kind of solar panel export all that energy it’s created without raising the price, or lowering the efficiency too much.