Column: All that glitters could become electricity

Bling is in the air and here in Victoria, it isn’t frost crystals. Nor has it anything to do with Monday’s New Year festivities.

It has more to do with the disco-flashing crosswalk signals cropping up at Saanich intersections and the sun-catching glitter recently developed south of the border.

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Supplied by Victoria’s Carmanah Technologies, the bright-yellow LED crosswalk warning devices incorporate solar, LED and wireless technologies. The variable flashing frequency of the lights makes them extremely effective at grabbing drivers’ attention. This results in some of the highest rates of driver compliance for all crosswalk signals.

A study by the U.S. Department of Transportation found rectangular rapid-flashing beacons like these increased yielding by drivers approaching activated crosswalks to as much as 88 per cent. In contrast, the standard overhead flashing lights we’re familiar with saw compliance increase at a crosswalk by only about five per cent.

And with the price of metals rising and attendant theft of copper increasing, the wireless systems also allow municipalities to limit costs due to copper theft. In fact, Los Angeles is now installing the solar-powered lights along six kilometres of commuter pathways that have seen copper wires repeatedly stripped and stolen from grid-powered lighting fixtures.

These are just one recent advance in solar-energy technologies.

At last month’s GreenTech Exchange at Royal Roads University, Home Energy Solutions’ David Eggles said solar energy is becoming more affordable and more efficient every year. Home Energy Solutions, another Victoria-based solar-tech company, provides energy options for homes and businesses.

“Costs have steadily come down to the point it’s now practical and almost financially feasible” to install solar electrical power on your home, Eggles told his audience. In remote areas, or where extensive power-line construction is required, solar photovoltaics are often more affordable than electricity derived from conventional sources.

In fact, solar electric is so cheap, Eggles says, it is now cost-competitive with domestic solar thermal-energy systems — the same systems for which the province provides homeowner incentives.

But imagine solar cells so small they resemble spangles on party clothes or sparkles found on Christmas baubles. Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico recently began researching how to use tiny solar cells to produce electricity.

Called microsystems-enabled photovoltaics, the solar cells range in size from grains of sand to sequins, and have been nicknamed “solar glitter.” The systems make use of micro-electromechanical technologies. These same technologies make smartphones and other microprocessors possible.

With silicon wafers thinner than the diameter of a hair, the glitter systems convert up to 20 per cent of the sunlight they capture into energy and cost about half what traditional solar cells cost.

Ordinary cells typically are made in blocks about 15 centimetres square, and retail in Canada for about $6 to $8 per watt produced. Silicon materials account for 40 to 50 per cent of that cost. But that size in a solar panel presents a problem when the panels are even partially shaded. The panel stops working.

When sunlight hits a solar cell, the silicon releases electrons. This produces voltage. Knock enough electrons off the silicon, and you produce a lot of voltage. A photovoltaic system captures voltage and puts it to work to charge batteries or run electrical systems.

Take away the sunlight and no voltage is produced. Therefore, no electricity.

Sandia says a solar panel made of thousands of independent tiny cells would be less affected by shade. And being tiny, the glitter cells could be mounted on flexible surfaces or even fabric.

Applications are still being developed, but in 10 years, you may be able to install solar-fabric awnings that shade your windows from summer sunshine while powering fans or air conditioners to cool your house. You may be able to wear clothing embedded with solar cells to keep your cellphone or handheld GPS device charged. Or solar hats that enable battery-powered lights to keep you visible when you walk Victoria’s dimly lit streets at night. Maybe your hat could flash in sync with the solar-powered crosswalk signals.

Or you may be able to outshine other New Year party-goers with a holiday outfit that keeps your bling twinkling and your spangles sparkling all evening long.

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