A multi-disciplinary group of researchers from Trinity has secured funding to develop technology which will improve performance and reduce the cost of solar panels in Ireland and across the globe – greatly enhancing the viability of a low carbon energy source that could help mitigate the effects of global climate change.

Solar photovoltaic (PV) technology converts energy directly from light to electricity, but only around 20% of the sunlight can be effectively converted. The remaining energy generates heat, which raises the temperature of the panel.

Solar panels, such as those installed on residential rooftops, can reach temperatures as high as 60°C in Ireland, and up to 100oC in hotter climates.

The electricity output of solar panels is reduced at higher temperatures, which leads to a fundamental problem – solar panels are actually less efficient in countries with more sunshine! These elevated temperatures can reduce electricity output by up to 30% and also seriously shorten the lifetime of the solar panels.

Developing technology attached to back of solar panel

To tackle this issue, Professor David McCloskey from Trinity’s School of Physics and Professor Séamus O’Shaughnessy from Trinity’s School of Engineering are developing a technology which attaches to the back of a solar panel and reduces the operating temperature by up to 20oC.

This will result in an immediate 10% increase in energy output but, more importantly, it will slow the solar panel degradation and could double the panel lifetime from 20 to 40 years. This would significantly reduce both the cost and CO2 footprint of solar PV technology.

Visible (left) and thermal (right) images of two 50W monocrystalline silicon solar panels. Both panels are identical. The panel on the right is fitted with the technology which can reduce the temperature by up to 20oC as seen in the thermal image. Images were taken in Dublin on a sunny day in early March with a 6oC background temperature.

Prof McCloskey said: Our solution uses natural cooling from the surrounding air, and does not require additional energy, water, or chemicals. We have demonstrated that the technology works and we are now exploring techniques to scale up production in a cost-effective manner.

"Once developed this technology will be of interest to both large-scale solar farm developers and also private households whose occupants want to increase return on their solar panel investment.”    

Plans to deploy the technology

The team is currently deploying prototypes on a 6kWp test site in Ireland and plans to deploy the technology at test sites in India and South Africa later this year.

The work is jointly funded by Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFA) under the SFI Zero Emissions Challenge Future Innovator Prize.

The objective for funded projects is to generate technologies that reduce and eliminate CO2 emissions, with particular focus on impact within developing world countries.

To achieve this, the Trinity team is working together with Phelan Energy Group and Concern Worldwide so that the impact of the technology can be fully realised on a global scale.

For more information see: www.nanothermal.ie/projects/zeroemissions.