Solar Glass Blocks Allow Buildings to Generate Their Own Power

These glass blocks convert the sun’s energy into electricity, and can be built directly into the walls of buildings.

Solar power systems in buildings usually involve rooftop panels, but a new innovation could help capture solar energy via the walls themselves.

Autor*in Tristan Rayner, 10.18.17

Translation Tristan Rayner:

Solar power systems in buildings usually involve rooftop panels, but a new innovation could help capture solar energy via the walls themselves.

Solar is one of renewable energy’s greatest success stories, with costs dropping dramatically as the efficiency of conventional solar panels increases – but there’s still more that can be done.

Harvesting solar energy from rooftop panels isn’t always possible – often due to the type of building being unsuitable, or structural limitations. And solar panels themselves also have some of their own environmental impacts.

An innovation from the University of Exeter adds energy harvesting to glass blocks, which could offer a new way to generate energy to walls and windows, without expensive materials or pollutants.

Glass blocks are already used in many buildings, serving as an option for architects and builders to add to the structure of a building to let in light, while maintaining privacy. They’re a common feature in bathrooms in newer brick buildings across the world.

This new block is designed to collect solar energy and convert it to electricity as a concentrator photovoltaic cell, via a patent-pending design. The design builds in an array of optics that guide sunlight onto small-sized solar cells. The blocks don’t use expensive lenses, and offer better thermal insulation than traditional glass blocks. They also offer a futuristic green look, which is desirable for new energy-efficient buildings.

The innovation, called Solar Squared, has been spun off from the University of Exeter into a company called Build Solar.

“Buildings consume more than forty percent of the electricity produced across the globe,” said Dr Hasan Baig, the co-founder of Build Solar and one of the academics in the University of Exeter team.

“Deployment of standard solar technology is limited by the large area requirement and the negative visual impact. We wanted to overcome these limitations by introducing technologies that become a part of the building’s envelope.”

The Build Solar team are aiming for the Solar Squared product to be a cheaper building material than a traditional glass block, with the added benefit of providing electricity to buildings.

From a Prototype to a Practical Solution

But these innovative glass blocks still face a number of challenges. The product is at the prototype phase, and it’s not known exactly how much power can be generated from a standard installation throughout a year, or how soon the payback period might be.

And there are practical issues too, such as if the blocks are maintainable in the event they stop working, or what the electrical wiring requirements on the inside might be like.

The commercialisation question is always pertinent, but it’s a smart idea looking for a kickstart to see if it can be realised.

Build Solar are currently looking for test sites to install Solar Squared, and seeking outside investment to push the green technology forward.

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