The device called a transparent luminescent solar concentrator can be used on buildings, cell phones and any other device that has a clear surface.
"No one wants to sit behind coloured glass," said Richard Lunt of Michigan State University's College of Engineering.
"It makes for a very colourful environment, like working in a disco. We take an approach where we actually make the luminescent active layer itself transparent," said Lunt.
The solar harvesting system uses small organic molecules developed by Lunt and his team to absorb specific non-visible wavelengths of sunlight.
"We can tune these materials to pick up just the ultraviolet and the near infrared wavelengths that then 'glow' at another wavelength in the infrared," he said.
The ‘glowing’ infrared light is guided to the edge of the plastic where it is converted to electricity by thin strips of photovoltaic solar cells.
"Because the materials do not absorb or emit light in the visible spectrum, they look exceptionally transparent to the human eye," Lunt said.
One of the benefits of this new development is its flexibility. While the technology is at an early stage, it has the potential to be scaled to commercial or industrial applications with an affordable cost, researchers said.
"It opens a lot of area to deploy solar energy in a non-intrusive way," Lunt said.
"It can be used on tall buildings with lots of windows or any kind of mobile device that demands high aesthetic quality like a phone or e-reader. Ultimately we want to make solar harvesting surfaces that you do not even know are there," said
Currently the device is able to produce solar conversion efficiency close to one percent, but researchers aim to reach efficiencies beyond 5 per cent when fully optimized.

The best coloured LSC has an efficiency of around seven percent. The research was published in the journal Advanced Optical Materials.

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