A new plastic composite, invented at the University of Toronto, could make possible a revolution in converting solar power into electrical energy. The infrared-sensitive material is reportedly five times more efficient than current solar technology for capturing the sun's rays and converting them into electricity. If all goes as planned, this super thin material could be applied to any surfaces that receive infrared (IR) radiation from the sun, such as rooftops, the walls of rooms that get ambient light, and even clothing. The material utilizes nanotechnology, specifically, minute particles called "quantum dots", which are only three to four nanometers across. These tiny particles are combined with a polymer, in order to produce the photosensitive plastic. Because such plastics can be made flexible, it is possible that the quantum dots could be embedded on the surface of everyday devices, including jackets and pants. As a result, hand-held electronic devices -- such as cell phones and PDAs -- could receive all of their needed power simply from the clothing worn by the device's user.
This remarkable new material was discovered by a research team led by Ted Sargent, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the university. The discovery was reported in an article dated 9 January 2005, on the Web site of CTV, a Canadian broadcast company. The scientific details were published on the Web site of Nature Materials on the same day, and in the journal's February 2005 issue. The new material is capable of converting up to 30% of sunlight into electrical energy -- a fivefold improvement over current plastic solar cells, which can only convert about six percent of received sunlight. In the article, Professor Sargent is quoted as stating in a phone interview that, "...there's enough power from the sun hitting the Earth every day to supply all the world's needs for energy 10,000 times over."
Sargent laments the fact that people walking around with various handheld devices are frequently in need of plugging them in, just to recharge their batteries. It would be far more convenient for the devices to pull power directly from the owner's outerwear and possibly the outside shell of the device itself. He believes that this would make possible a truly wireless world. This seems like a reasonable conclusion, as consumers would not be restricted to powering their electricity-hungry devices from power cords plugged into wall outlets, or batteries with limited energy storage capacities.
Perhaps most exciting of all, from an ecological standpoint, is the tantalizing possibility that all of our power needs could be met by coating this photosensitive material on all man-made items that would be exposed to direct or ambient sunlight -- which is probably the majority of our goods and structures. Doing so could theoretically make it possible for mankind to cease burning fossil fuels, building massive hydroelectric plants and the dams to power them, and generating radioactive waste from nuclear power plants. Putting an end to these unsustainable energy practices would have an unquestionably profound impact upon the quality of our air and water, in addition to eliminating the need for ugly power lines, dangerous nuclear reactors, and homes filled with electrical lines and fire-starting electrical cords.
For examples of solar power devices already hatched from the laboratories, please see some of the featured products below.
Despite the ever-lower prices of PCs and their increasing compliance with recycling and power conservation guidelines, modern PCs are still criticized as being too expensive to buy en masse, particularly for schools and other facilities that need large numbers of computers, but have little money to purchase them. Another problem for such facilities, is that when a mainstream PC is utilized exclusively for Internet access, much of the machine's local data storage capabilities (i.e., hard drive and optical drives) are unused and thus wasted. In addition, most PCs continue to be manufactured using lead and other toxic substances that leach into the soil and water after disposal.
In October of 2004, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer challenged the computer industry to build a $100 PC. One might hope that his call for affordable PCs was meant so that people in poor countries could get the computer experience and Internet access needed to develop commercially and thus improve their living conditions. Instead, Ballmer was referring to his solution for stemming the piracy of Microsoft products (especially Windows and Office software) in emerging markets, which has become a major concern for the industry giant. In the speech to technology executives, Ballmer claimed that "PCs are not selling to the lower end of the population in China and India. People buying machines there are relatively affluent..." and thus should pay full price. Apparently his thinking is that, if hardware manufacturers drop PC prices to $100, it will allow citizens and businesses in poor countries to pay more to Microsoft. In the U.S., the cost of a legal copy of Microsoft Windows can range from $100 (for an OEM version, whose license is useable only once) to $240 (for a reusable license).
The technology community quickly responded that it is ludicrous for Microsoft to expect PC makers to cut their razor-thin profit margins (typically 1-3 percent) even more, just so that Microsoft can enjoy margins estimated at 400 percent, while selling computers in which the operating system alone would comprise the bulk of the cost. Techies pointed out that Linux, a free operating system, would be the ideal replacement for (expensive) Windows.
To that end, SolarPC began selling a $100 PC called the SolarLite, which runs Linux, and not Windows. The book-sized machine weighs approximately three pounds, and has a rugged no-moving-parts design that could be ideal for poor, rural environments. Instead of using a hard drive, it comes with a less expensive Flash drive -- pre-loaded with dozens of software programs, and links to free development software and education programs. The solid-state computer is aimed at organizations that need a maintenance-free Internet PC.
The SolarLite is designed to be an environmentally friendly computer: It utilizes a lightweight, recyclable, aluminum case, as well as a lead-free motherboard. The machine runs cool and quiet, and requires only about 10 watts of energy, which is a fraction of what a conventional PC consumes. The SolarLite has no built-in power supply, thus saving weight and expense. Like all other SolarPC computers, this innovative PC can be run from a solar panel, a car battery, or even a bicycle-based generator. That gives new meaning to the computer term "clock cycles"!
SolarPC, a Nevada-based firm, also announced the Global Education Link (GEL) project, an initiative whose goal is to give away a million SolarLite computers to schools in poor countries. The purpose of the GEL project is to "improve education in third world countries and thereby encourage self-sufficiency and promote world harmony".
Solar Power Generation
Based in the sunny states of Florida and Texas, Solar Power Generation offers alternative energy products, design, and education -- especially for solar power. Their Web site features a fascinating plethora of energy efficient appliances, alternative energy kits, and wind power equipment. They even sell solar-powered fans and robotic bugs.
Colorado gets its share of sunshine as well, beaming down on the offices of Solar Solutions, which provides renewable energy systems and components, including those utilizing solar electric, as well as hybrid power sources. Their Web site lists a large number of products, in 18 categories, ranging from solar panels and wind turbines to gate openers and batteries.
Speaking of energy, the typical infant has more than enough of it to grow out of their clothing at a remarkable rate. If that sounds like a child of someone you wish to get something special for, Sage Creek can help, with their infant gift set, each made up of an organic cotton nightgown, embroidered hat, and receiving blanket, all inside a handmade basket lined with organic cotton.
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