By Marianne Lavelle, for National Geographic August 05, 2015
“It’s a whole new way of thinking about solar energy, because now you have a lot of potential surface area,” says Miles Barr, chief executive and co-founder of Silicon Valley startup Ubiquitous Energy, a company spun off by researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Michigan State University.
Organic chemistry is the secret to creating such material. Using just the simple building blocks of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and a few other elements found in all life on Earth, scientists since at least the early 1990s have been working on designing arrays of molecules that are able to transport electrons—in other words, to transmit electric current.
Barr says that Ubiquitous is on track to achieve efficiency of more than 10% —less than silicon, but able to be installed more widely. Ubiquitous engineers are building organic photovoltaic structures 1,000 times thinner than a human hair.
Shayle Kann, senior vice president of GTM Research market research firm, noted the process cost advantage in a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” earlier this month. But he said may be hard for transparent solar companies to gain access to enough capital to ramp up manufacturing, when their product will be pitted against well-established, more efficient conventional panels.
Barr says Ubiquitous plans to prove its technology first on a small scale. The company’s pilot production facility in Redwood City, California, is currently working with mobile device manufacturers to design prototype smartphones, watches, and other small electronics powered by Ubiquitous technology.
“We think providing battery-life extension and solving battery life problems will be a very good entry point for us,” he said.
It’s not yet certain when transparent solar-powered mobile devices will be available or what prices will be. But Barr says the Ubiquitous team doesn’t expect the technology to change the cost of the mobile devices significantly. And don’t look for a solar panel on your new sun-powered smartphone. If everything works out as the company hopes, the solar material will be an invisible coating under the glass over the device display.