New solar panel creates power from rain, as well as sunlight

Data centers located in poor weather climates may be able to harness the power of sun and rain using a hybrid panel developed by scientists at Soochow University.

New solar panel creates power from rain, as well as sunlight
Yuqiang Liu, Na Sun, Jiawei Liu, et al. ©2018 American Chemical Society

With an upcoming data tsunami expected to absorb up to 20 percent of global electricity by 2025, according to some experts, data center energy sources are a hot talking point — the photovoltaic solar panel being one of the hottest and most viable fossil fuel alternatives.

However, there’s an obvious problem with the solar panel as electricity source: When sunlight drops off on cloudy or rainy days, so does power output.

Chinese scientists, though, think they have a solution, and that’s to develop a generalized hybrid panel that also harnesses the power of rain. It compensates for lack of sun on iffy days and at night.

“Solar cells, as promising devices for converting light into electricity, have a dramatically reduced performance on rainy days,” say the scientists from Soochow University in an abstract of their paper published in the American Chemical Society’s ACS Nano. So they think they can “realize power generation from both sunlight and raindrops.”

They’re using a triboelectric nano-generator, also known as a TENG generator. That’s a polymer-constructed device that captures an electrical charge from mechanical energy, or friction. As the raindrops fall on the surface and then roll off, power is created from the compression and force.

By making the TENG see-through and combining it with a conventional silicon solar panel, solar energy gets to the photovoltaic panel, too, and thus power is created from both rain and sunlight.

Importantly, and the reason why this invention is different from previous ideas in the same vein, the group has figured out how to use a mutual electrode to join the two polymer elements, rather than wire, explains Lisa Zyga at Phys.org. She communicated with paper co-author Dr. Zhen Wen at Soochow University.

Removing the wire makes the hybrid generator efficient and allows for a waterproof barrier so that bad weather doesn’t permeate the silicon used in the solar panel.

The rain and solar panel is “an efficient approach to collect energy from the environment in different weather conditions,” the abstract says.

There is still one challenge to deal with: “The minor drawback that the solar cell and TENG cannot function simultaneously,” Zyga writes. It won’t work in a rare sunshower, Zyga says.

An option for data centers in bad weather locations

Interestingly, and while this TENG-hybrid solar project is clearly in its conceptual, development stages, there is an argument in favor of locating data centers in areas with poor weather — it’s cheaper to cool the buildings. And it is indeed a major reason why the world’s largest data center is being built in the arctic circle at Ballangen in Norway. Facebook, too, has a data center in Luleå, Sweden, which is in the arctic circle region.

So, perhaps a for-cloudy weather solar panel, or limited sunlight solar panel (arctic areas can have limited sunlight anyway in winter), will have legs — not just in notoriously gloomy weather industrialized locales such as the United Kingdom, where alternative fuels such as wind power are gaining traction, but also in the hinterlands. Plus solar panels need less maintenance than wind power because there are fewer moving parts.

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