In of fossil fuels came to the fore

In the
recent past, there has been a worldwide push to generate a greater proportion
of our energy resources from renewable sources. This is largely due to the
burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas; which release carbon
dioxide emissions into the atmosphere. This excess carbon dioxide remains in
the atmosphere and causes an increase in the greenhouse effect, resulting in
the overall surface temperature of the planet increasing. The effects of this
include an increase in the rate of natural disasters and an acceleration in the
melting of polar ice, causing sea levels to rise globally. Solar energy is now one
of the main sources of renewable energy today, with the UK producing more
energy from solar sources than coal in the period April – September 2016;
accounting for 5.2% of energy demand in this period. 1 Furthermore,
innovation in solar energy continues today, with ideas such as wearable solar
technology currently under development. 2 So bearing this in mind,
how far will solar technology advance in the future and how much will it be
valued by humanity?

Even
though the energy from the Sun has been utilised for millennia, photovoltaic
technology was only discovered in the 19th century. In 1839, Edmond
Becquerel, was the first to observe the photovoltaic effect when he produced a
current by submerging platinum or gold plates in a solution and exposing it to
solar radiation. 3 Much later, in the 1870s, much work was done
investigating the photoconductive properties of selenium, eventually leading to
the creation of the first photovoltaic solar cell from selenium by Charles
Fritts in 1884. This solar cell, however innovative, was extremely inefficient
– boasting an efficiency of around 1%. 4 After this point though,
the development of solar technology stalled due to a newly discovered abundance
of fossil fuels in the early 20th century; this was a critical
development because previously many people had been fearful of the depletion of
limited fossil fuel supplies. 5 Eventually, fears about the
limited supply of fossil fuels came to the fore due to the 1973 and 1979 oil
and energy crises which significantly increased the price of oil in particular
– leading to an increased focus on renewable energy sources including solar
power. 56 Over the following years photovoltaic technology
became gradually more efficient, making it a viable source of power for many
countries, leading to endorsements and programs led by governments worldwide,
providing the funding required for further research in the field.

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Modern
photovoltaic solar cells are made of commonly used semiconductors such as
silicon. The silicon semiconductor is doped so that one part is positively
charged, p-type, and one part is negatively charged, n-type, containing more
electrons – this creates an electric field. When photons of a certain frequency
are incident on the negative part of the silicon, through one on one
interactions they cause electrons to be released from the surface; this is
known as the photoelectric effect. The free electrons then accelerate due to
the electric field towards the positively charged surface. When the two
surfaces are connected through a conductor, a circuit is produced. The flow of electrons
from one silicon semiconductor to the other is the electrical current. This form
of solar cell is the basic form of the solar cells used today, which have been
improved on for many decades. 7

Most
solar cells used commercially or privately today have an average efficiency of
10-15%. 7 At this moment in time however, the most efficient solar
cell, a multi junction concentrator solar cell, has a recorded efficiency of
46.0%. 8 This level of efficiency though is only possible in the
more experimental solar technology though and is expensive and therefore is very
unlikely to become mainstream in the near future. As for improvements to commercial
solar energy production today, many photovoltaic power stations now produce concentrated
solar power. This is achieved by using multiple mirrors and lenses to concentrate
a large area of sunlight onto a smaller area of solar cells; meaning that the
same amount of solar energy can be produced in a smaller area, reducing costs.
New solar arrays are also being created with dual and single axis trackers for
their panels. This allows the panels to be constantly perpendicular to the
incoming sunlight in either one or two dimensions depending on which one is
used. This allows the panels to be at maximum energy production throughout the
entire day; improving efficiency

As for
the future, we are constantly developing new and innovative ways to produce
solar energy other than the generic solar panels used on buildings and the photovoltaic
power stations that exist currently. For example, there have been advancements
in the development of bio-solar cells, which use a type of bacteria called
cyanobacteria to allow easier powering of wireless devices. This will
eventually be useful in scenarios in which solar cells are placed in more and
more remote areas, becoming difficult to connect the array to an external power
source. 9 Another idea that could potentially revolutionise the
solar industry is being worked on by the Japanese Space Agency’s Space Solar
Power Systems project. It involves sending solar panels into near Earth orbit,
which will then produce energy which is transmitted down to a base station
through microwave radiation. 9 Solar cells in orbit have the
possibility to produce more energy than those on Earth as they have access to
higher concentration sunlight which has not been diluted by the Earth’s
atmosphere. Also, if this development succeeds, it could mean that the potential
area to house solar cells would increase dramatically. Even more extraordinary
is the idea of energy capturing trees that store solar and kinetic wind energy
in their leaves. They will most likely be 3D printed from a wood like biomaterial
and should be able to survive both indoors and outdoors; prototypes are
currently being created in Finland at the VTT research centre. 9 Efforts
are also being made to improve efficiency in many different ways. One of these
is to harness the infrared part of the electromagnetic spectrum, which passes straight
through our current solar panels. Utilising this energy could increase
efficiency by up to 30%. An alternative method of increasing efficiency in
photovoltaics is common in all forms of technology – size. IBM are attempting
to make individual solar cells up to ten times smaller thus allowing the production
of up to ten times more energy while using the same amount of space. 9
As these innovations make obvious, there will be no lack of ideas for the
capture of solar and other clean energies to carry us into the future.

To
conclude, solar technology has become a major source of our energy and will
continue to increase its share of the industry in the years to come.
Developments to the efficiency and size of photovoltaic solar cells will
continue to make it more affordable and a better investment, allowing the
average consumer to take advantage of this renewable and clean resource. In the
long term, solar power is projected to become one of, if not the main source of
energy on Earth. In 2014, the International Energy Agency reassessed its long-term
predictions for the future of photovoltaic energy production. They predicted
that by 2050, solar energy would make up 16% of global energy production.
However, such is the exponential behaviour in the increase in solar
installations, that this projection is already outdated, with it looking
increasingly likely that solar energy will make up 20% of global energy
production by 2027. 9 This is a huge change in prediction and is
partly due to the rapid development of the solar industry in East Asian
countries such as China; who, in 2016, even though already having almost twice
the energy production capacity of the second largest solar producer Japan,
doubled their own capacity. 10 As for the even more distant future,
solar energy currently is and continue to be a major factor in space
exploration; especially in the future colonisation of other planets and satellites
in the solar system, that will not have the means for other forms of energy
production. As the demand for mass energy production increases worldwide, it
seems likely that the solar industry will be able to meet it; with a seemingly
endless cycle of evolution and innovation in its future.

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