Ever heard of photovoltatronics, the new frontier of solar in urban environments?


Scientists at Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) in the Netherlands have identified a new research field in photovoltaics, which they called photovoltatronics, that relates to the deployment of intelligent PV devices in components with multiple functionalities.

TU Delft professor Miro Zeman explained that photons and electrons in solar cells are not only energy carriers but also information carriers. “Our idea is to find a smart way of combining these two characteristics and merging the functionality of energy and information carrier in one device,” he stated. “This will enable you to design solar cells in such a way that you have a new component that not only generates electricity but also processes information.”

How this approach is expected to be implemented is explained in the paper Photovoltatronics: intelligent PV-based devices for energy and information applications, published in Energy & Environmental Science, in which the Dutch group specified the ultimate goal of this new research field is enabling solar cells to communicate with each other and with other devices, ensuring that all the generated energy ends up exactly where it’s needed, especially in the urban environment.

This will be achieved through the creation of what the researchers call PV-based intelligent energy agents (PV-IEAs). “Novel PV-IEAs will be developed combining PV technology with photonics, micro- and power-electronics, sensor technology, energy storage, wireless communication, and computer science,” the academics state. Each of these devices will have to be based on three main elements: sensors to measure their environmental conditions and internal state; control algorithms and a “brain” that is responsible for their execution; and actuators are needed to execute and operate the decisions taken by the brain. “At present, PV generators fulfill only one function, namely electricity generation, therefore they usually have only electrical actuators such as power optimizers,” the researchers further explained. “PV-IEAs instead can be multi-functional, hence they can contain also non-electrical actuators, for instance, optical ones.”

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Five research areas were identified for future developments in the new field. These include: modeling for optimum energy harvesting from ambient energy sources; the setting up of real PV-based intelligent energy agents; stabilizing energy output by integrating storage within a PV module; the wireless transmission of electricity through novel electrode design of PV panels; and integration and control of light-generating elements for light communication.

An example of what these five domains combined may bring to future urban environments is described in the paper, through a model showing eleven potential applications of photovoltatronics and comprising the following innovations: colored PV cells with a selective optical filter for passive cooling; a PV-chimney integrated into a natural ventilated façade for heat transfer: PV modules used as light fidelity (LiFi) signal receivers; LED powered by PV units; PV devices that can produce electricity, wirelessly transform it, and also send/receive data signals, which they also called PV-LED cells; solar roads; storage-integrated PV modules for façades; semi-transparent BIPV cells for outdoor energy generation and indoor light management; smart PV modules with high shading tolerability incorporated with sensing electronics for urban monitoring; PV modules with wireless power transfer and data sharing capabilities; and solar-powered vehicles with embedded PV-IEA communicating via LiFi between each other.

“We expect that in the next decade, the scientific community will witness the growth of the photovoltatronics as a research field,” the Dutch academics concluded. “At the same time, to be able to introduce the photovoltatronics devices in real applications, it is necessary to assess the legal issues and obligations that are related to their utilization.”

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