Scientists Develop Underground Solar Panels

Researchers at Georgia Tech have developed a solar-powered system using concealed panels that generate electricity through fiber optic cables connected to the outside.

| November 2009 Web

  • The SubSolar system would include many feet of fiber optic cables hooked up to an underground capsule where light would be converted into electricity.
    Photo Courtesy EarthSure

Solar panels are getting so high-tech that soon they won't even need to be placed outside to generate power. Scientists at Georgia Tech are working on a project that combines technology, alternative energy and aesthetics. The result? Underground, or concealed, solar panels. 

The panels, which are placed in basements and walls, are connected to the outside through fiber optic cables coated with zinc oxide. The cables pick up light at their tips and transport the light down to the panels. During the journey the light is turned into electrical energy. 

It takes thousands of cables—which are about the size of a strand of human hair—to produce electricity. To power a 10-watt light bulb you would need 10,000 fibers at four inches long.

The bad news: these panels aren’t very efficient—only about 3.3 percent—but they are cheap (and easy) to produce. Dip the cables into a solution of zinc oxide that has been heated to 158 degrees Fahrenheit, allow them to dry, attach them to some wiring and—presto!—you’ve got electricity.

While Georgia Tech scientists are still researching this system, New Jersey company EarthSure is making plans to offer a similar system in the future. The company’s planned system, SubSolar, would generate solar power 24 hours a day using natural or artificial light, fiber optic cables and capsules buried underground that would convert the light into electricity. EarthSure says it would take a six-foot-long system to power homes and a 20-foot-long system (10 feet in diameter) to power businesses.

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