Tech Prize Goes to Inventor Who Wants to Turn Skyscrapers Into Generators

By Joseph Calamia | June 10, 2010 5:12 pm

leafMichael Gratzel has come clean and revealed that he stole his award-winning design for a new kind of solar cell–stole it from a leaf, that is. The Swiss inventor and first prize-winner of the $960,000 Millennium Technology Prize believes he has a cheap way to power everything from cell phones to street lamps, copying plants’ power to harness sunlight and turn it into energy.

“I was always intrigued with natural photosynthesis,” Gratzel says in a Millennium Technology Prize video (see below), “the way the plant uses molecules to generate charges.”

His  solar cells aren’t as efficient as the current silicon photovoltaic panels, but they do use cheaper manufacturing materials.

“Gratzel’s innovation is likely to have an important role in low-cost, large-scale solutions for renewable energy,” Ainomaija Haarla, president of Finland’s Technology Academy, says in a prepared news release on the group’s website. [CNN]

Gratzel can also make his solar cells transparent or flexible. This means that designers might integrate them into existing structures, for example windows or even furniture.

“You can imagine using those cells as electricity producing windows…. What’s very exciting is that you collect light from all sides, so can capture electricity from the inside as well as the outside…. You could think that the glass of all high-rises in New York would be electricity generating panels,” he said. [BBC]

In 1991, Gratzel published a paper in Nature on how the cells, which use a mixture including a (not necessarily green) dye, absorb light and create an electric current.

Only 10 micrometers thick, the [dye] mixture is sandwiched between two glass plates or embedded in plastic. Light striking the dye frees electrons … [and] semiconducting titanium dioxide particles collect the electrons and transfer them to an external circuit, producing an electric current. [eWeek]

Gratzel believes the cheap cell will prove essential in India and Africa, where he foresees its use for communications and medical purposes.

Related content:
80beats: The Dream: Print-Out Solar Panels That Can Be Stapled to Your Roof
80beats: Glitter-Sized Solar Cells Could Be Woven into Your Power Tie
80beats: Self-Assembling Solar Panels Use the Vinaigrette Principle
DISCOVER: Sun Catcher Promises Cheaper Solar Power

Image: flickr / seeks2dream

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Technology
  • Idlewilde

    Bravo! It sounds like a great idea. We need some of these in america.

  • Joshua McClure

    How do I get some? like a few square miles?

  • David Jefferis

    The solar dream is alive!

    Here’s hoping this can go to full commercial availability at an affordable price for all.

  • steinmentz1

    What you want is simple and cheap! Have you heard of the ‘Chiminy Effect’?
    Use one of the stairways and convert it into a chiminy and put a windmill
    halfway up. and open the door from that stairway at street level and open
    the door on the roof. Depending on the hight of the building, the updraft will turn the windmill and produce power. Blow across the top of a bottle and you can produce a sound as the presure equalizes. New buildings can be built with a central air shaft. Lets say you are using an elivator in a tall building, as the door opens, you may notice a strong draft of air. This chiminy effect will also work with sea water as deeper water is colder than surface water and along with the movement of tides or waves in a tall shaft will turn a set of propellers to produce power. Set up a string of propellers and windmills in the Gulf Stream and if a storm happens, the whole setup can be submerged until the storm passes.

  • steinmentz1

    Oh and by the way, those windmills including the vanes can be covered with solar cells.

  • Achmed Khammas

    This prize come at leat 15 years to late!!

    Grätzel is working since around 1990 on his technology and he need help in the early years to get foreward much quicker… but his seems not to be the interest of the administrations and industries.

    The complete story including a way to produce the cells at home is part of my ‘Buch der Synergie’ (in German):

  • Earth4Energy review

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