How thin can solar panels get?

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Solar panels called ‘Solar Paper’, due to their small size and weight, can now be used to charge a whole host of small appliances such as mobile phones or laptops.

Remember when computers were too heavy to lift? Depending on how old you are, maybe not. Either way, now they can fit into a pocket and the weight is barely noticeable. The same thing has happened with solar technology. First presented as heavy solar panels – that needed a lot of muscle to get them onto the roof –we are now at the other end of the spectrum. Solar panels called ‘Solar Paper’, due to their small size and weight, can now be used to charge a whole host of small appliances such as mobile phones or laptops.

Solar Paper fits into the pages of a book rather like a bookmark, only it’s a bit bigger than most bookmarks at 19x9cm and just 4mm thick. At the top end there is a USB charging port 11mm thick. Each ‘page’ of this solar panel device provides 2.5W of power. At 128gm you can easily stick two or three together and use them to charge up your phone, external battery, camera and other devices. In fact, four solar panels can be joined together to juice a larger device such as a laptop. And don’t worry, the devices are embedded with magnets so you won’t lose them.

Why would we want this?

Solar Paper is ideal for the person on the go who does not have time to take their phone home and wait for it to recharge. You don’t even have to find a power point to plug in your usual phone charger. Solar Paper means you can get power from the sun while you’re walking down the street, enjoying a coffee at an outdoor cafe, waiting to play tennis or riding a horse. It’s also ideal for camping, when there’s often no power available.

The best features

A nifty feature of Solar Paper is that it turns on automatically. Previous models switched off whenever a cloud hid the sun or if you walked through a shadow. They had to be rebooted manually. This could be annoying and frustrating, especially if you were busy and didn’t notice the shadow.

Another feature is the LCD screen that tells you how much power is being delivered at any one time. The advantage of this is that you can easily choose the correct angle of orientation to the sun for the best result. It also helps you understand how different kinds of weather will affect its ability to charge your device.

It’s water resistant, which is handy if a sudden shower strikes when you are out and about, or if your little brother sneaks up with a water pistol. There are also grommet holes, allowing you to attach it to things such as the outside of your backpack. So you can put it to work charging your phone while you are out on the go.

Why is it different to what is already available?

Many devices such as this that are already available don’t work because they’re too small to generate the amount of power needed. Others are too bulky to carry around easily. The new Solar Paper works well on just one panel and you can boost its power by adding up to three more panels, depending on the device you need to use it for most. These panels can still fold over for ease of transport when you are not using them; the magnets ensure that the parts will stay together.

Solar Paper solar panels are easy to carry around due to its compact size and light weight; you’ll hardly notice it. It certainly fills a niche, giving us a product we can trust to do the job we bought it for. And talking of buying – it is very affordable, given the usefulness it provides. You will no longer have to worry about your phone battery running out just when you need it most.

Upgrade by adding more

Three panels are advised for charging a Smartphone; this will be enough to charge it even in cloudy weather. The single panel will charge an external battery, iPhone 6 or Samsung Galaxy while four will be needed to charge an iPad Air 2.

Being able to decide on the amount of power – and therefore pages – you will need gives added versatility to this device. If you start off with the smaller size and find it is not quite enough, it is a simple matter to upgrade by adding another panel to the original. When the design of anything has obviously been well thought out, the result is something that almost everyone finds practical. Maybe one day something smaller and better will come along, but for now this has filled the niche, admirably ticking all the boxes of size, weight, affordability, ease of use and reliability.


What’s new in batteries?


Many of us have been caught out with dead car batteries, or missed an important call because we forgot to charge our smart phones. So it’s a relief to hear about improvements that extend the life of the not-so humble battery.

It’s not only the power stored in batteries that is important, but a battery’s staying power, size, weight and ability to charge up quickly – not to mention the cost. Another important factor is safety. The elements used in batteries can be dangerous to handle, but people who use them don’t usually come into contact with these elements. However, if a battery degrades and is touched it can cause an acid burn. Also some elements in some batteries are flammable.

Batteries and technology

There are many different kinds of batteries and it’s important to get the right one for the job. Experts are working constantly on new technology to improve batteries – we’ve all seen the giant leaps forward in innovation over the last decade. This is an ongoing scenario with constant improvements – both big and little – all of which are important in the general scheme of things.

Technology is not the only consideration when it comes to improvements in batteries. It also has to be mixed with other factors such as affordability, lightness and the amount of deliverable power in each battery. Cosmos Magazine detailed a number of the latest trends in batteries which we’ve summarised below.

The lithium ion battery

Regarded as the champ of batteries, the lithium ion can be used for just about everything; from cars to small appliances and your household solar power supply. In fact, they have the potential to allow home-owners with solar power to make considerable savings. While the technology used in these batteries is mature and reliable, there are some safety concerns. Airline passengers are warned of the risk of fire, especially if appliances containing lithium ion batteries are stored in the luggage section, where a fire can break out unnoticed until it’s too late. It is better to keep such devices in the cabin where the risk can be minimised.

However, aeroplanes also use lithium ion batteries as back-up for ground maintenance and to provide electricity during flight, as well as for back-up power of other important in-flight functions. In 2013 they overheated due to a chemical reaction called thermal runaway, and caused fires in a Boeing 787. It wasn’t just the fault of the batteries; certain other issues played a part in the problem. For instance, during the investigation, Boeing and the Federation Aviation Authority (FAA) found 17 non-compliance issues, some to do with the battery manufacture, but others to do with outsourcing the manufacture of certain airplane parts. With the latter, certain changes to the design and assembly of components were made without being okayed by Boeing first. While these issues did play a part in the fire, it’s hoped that a replacement will be found for the flammable component in these batteries and with a little tweaking the new ones will be even better.

The lithium sulphur battery

According to Cameron Shearer, materials engineer at Flinders University in Adelaide, the lithium sulphur battery will be the next commercial battery that may even replace the lithium ion battery. Why? It‘s more energy dense, with the potential to hold five times more energy than the lithium ion battery. It will potentially be suitable for small appliances, cars and household power supplies. The lithium sulphur battery uses lithium instead of granite to catch the lithium ions at the anode, while at the cathode, sulphur is used instead of a mix of metals. This makes it a much lighter battery – the only downside is that it doesn’t have a long life due to the sulphur degrading and clogging up the works. Once a viable solution for this has been found this battery could shoot to the top of the list. In fact, chemists at the Toyota Research Institute of North America in Michigan are working on a polymer coating to stabilise the sulphur.

The lithium air battery

It’s always good when something that is freely available can be used in a project. The lithium air battery is so called because it uses oxygen straight from the air, rather than sulphur to soak up the spent ions. This oxygen is exhaled as the battery is re-charged, making it the lightest battery yet. It can be used in devices and electric cars and has the potential to contain ten times more energy than the lithium ion battery. The main disadvantage is that it has a very short life span – so far. In fact, this battery has yet to move off the lab bench as it needs several elements to be improved before it’s suitable for commercial use. When that finally happens it may be the best battery of all.

The sodium ion battery

If you don’t mind weight and size, a cheaper battery that uses sodium rather than lithium is available for solar energy storage. The sodium ion battery also has the potential for use in cars and devices, but so far can only be used for applications where size is not a problem. The main disadvantage is that of poor performance, at least when compared with the lithium ion battery.

The flow battery

Last but not least is the flow battery which is ideal to store renewable energy. While it’s cheap and reliable, it can only be used for stationary applications due to using two tanks of electro-active liquids to shuttle the electrons between. Since the smallest of these batteries is the size of a bar fridge, you can understand that they are hardly suitable for appliances or even cars. But they are useful for places where size is not important. They’re great for use in remote locations such as mining sites. They could also be used for energy storage in the home by situating them behind a wall or somewhere that they can remain invisible.

As technology improves and delivers different and improved methods of making things, it’s highly likely that batteries will benefit. Even now techniques for high resolution microscopy are enabling scientists to custom design better and smaller battery components. So cool! Stay tuned on this one.


Home batteries are set to shake down power bills


The revolutionary new Tesla Powerwall home battery will be available in Australia next year. What does it do and how will it benefit you?

Never having to worry about paying an electricity bill is a thoroughly appealing prospect. Reducing both your electricity bill and your carbon footprint is doubly appealing. Never having to suffer the inconvenience of a power outage again positively triples the appeal. And it appears this win/win/win solution is fast approaching, at an upfront cost accessible to many Australians.

In April this year, Tesla Motors, makers of the Tesla Model S electric car, announced the launch of Tesla Energy – a suite of high-capacity batteries designed to store electricity. Of the three models, each aimed at different levels of electricity use, the one for use in the home is the Tesla Powerwall. There is also one for business use and a very large capacity battery for use by utility companies.

What sources of energy can the Powerwall work with?

The batteries can work with wind and solar electricity systems as well as the traditional power grid, storing energy during times of peak production or when power from the grid is cheapest and allowing its dispensing later. This eases the problem of intermittent supply when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing, or providing back-up power if the grid goes down.

Solar battery storage isn’t revolutionary, however the cheapest lithium-ion battery storage system currently on the market costs around $AU15,000 including installation. At a price of $US3000 for a 7kWh lithium-ion battery pack, Tesla has significantly reduced the price of solar battery storage, without compromising on quality. What’s more, the Powerwall comes with a 10-year warranty, something not available from any other battery company, and it’s compact, easy to install and maintenance-free.

Investment bank Morgan Stanley has said it expects the arrival of the Powerwall will catalyse the solar energy sector and lead to a rapid take-up of battery storage by Australian consumers.

From powering cars, to powering homes

Similar to the battery used in the Model S electric car, the Powerwall is a rechargeable lithium-ion battery that stores energy from solar panels or load shifting from the electricity grid to power your home at times when your solar panels aren’t providing enough electricity, for example, in the evening. It also provides a backup electricity supply in case of power outages.

Powerwall consists of the lithium-ion battery pack, a liquid thermal control system and software that receives dispatch demands from a solar inverter. The compact unit is mounted on a wall and integrated with the local electricity grid, or connected to the home’s solar panels to harness excess power and allow homeowners to draw energy from their own reserves when needed.

Closing the gap between supply and demand

In most homes, electricity use is higher in the morning and evening than during the day, when solar energy is plentiful. Powerwall closes this gap between your renewable energy supply and demand and makes your home’s solar energy available when you actually need it. It also reduces demand on power plants and reduces carbon emissions (and your power bill by avoiding peak rates). In the event of an outage, Powerwall automatically switches to battery power.

While home batteries are already available on the market, the current generation are bulky and can be expensive to install and maintain. Powerwall, on the other hand, is completely automated, compact, easy to have installed by an electrician and requires no ongoing maintenance.

Powerwall, due to arrive in Australia in early 2016, will be available in 10kWh weekly cycle and 7kWh daily cycle models. Both will offer 10-year warranties and sufficient energy to power the average home during peak evening hours. For larger than average homes (with more than four bedrooms), multiple batteries can be installed together. The wall-mounted Powerwall can be installed indoors or outside, however in areas where temperatures tip over 43C indoor installation is advised.

It’s estimated that 75 per cent of all electricity produced in Australia is generated by coal, with an average cost per household of about $2050 annually. Installing a Powerwall could potentially cut this cost by half, even without solar power.

While it’s ideal to pair the Powerwall with solar panels, households with no solar power still benefit from load-shifting, as the battery charges itself during the night when electricity is cheaper and discharges during the day when peak rates apply.

Preparing for Powerwall

Homeowners who already have solar systems can get their systems upgraded to support a Powerwall. Anyone planning to install a solar system prior to the Powerwall launch in Australia should ensure their system is Powerwall-ready in preparation.

There’s a crucial financial factor in getting a Powerwall-ready system now – the government-run solar energy financial incentive scheme. If you install a solar system now, it is subsidised by a government scheme worth about $700 per kW installed. The scheme is currently in place until at least May, 2017, but the dollar value will drop as the market for solar rises.

An investment in the future

The Powerwall  will launch in the US priced at $US3000 for the 7kWh model and $US3500 for the 10kWh model (excluding inverter and installation), with higher capacity models available for business use. As at August 2015, there was no definitive word on pricing for the Australian market but it’s expected the fully installed price for a 7kWh battery will be approximately $6000, so you’re looking at a relatively low initial investment in terms of ongoing future savings. Similarly priced systems from other major companies, including LG, Samsung and Bosch, are also expected to launch in 2016.

Tesla Motors, based in California, was named after eccentric genius and pioneer of electrical engineering, Nikolai Tesla, and has a stated mission to become an energy innovation company enabling zero-emission power generation. With the launch of Tesla Energy, the company is taking another vital step away from the use of fossil fuels and towards a sustainable energy future.

“Our goal here is to fundamentally change the way the world uses energy,” Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk told Bloomberg. “We’re talking at the terawatt scale. The goal is complete transformation of the entire energy structure of the world.”

Musk predicts 80 to 90 per cent of Tesla Energy sales will be in the large Powerpack system, designed to help major utility companies store power to reduce the need for expensive facilities that only run during times of peak demand.

Tesla’s $US5 billion ‘gigafactory’, currently in construction near Reno, Nevada, will drive down the cost of the company’s energy storage products even further through mass production. More such factories will be necessary in order to assist the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, Musk said.

More power to Tesla, and other companies leading the way.