Stephen Rand, a researcher and proffessor at the University of Michigan may have just casually overthrown 100 years of physics with his team’s new approach to harnessing solar energy.
The key to the breakthrough is the magnetic properties of light, which scientists thought negligible for years. But the researchers found that when light passes through a material that does not conduct electricity — such as glass — it has magnetic affects 100 million times stronger than anticipated.
That’s a big number, and it might have huge repercussions for solar cell manufacturers. Rand said:
In solar cells, the light goes into a material, gets absorbed and creates heat. Here, we expect to have a very low heat load. Instead of the light being absorbed, energy is stored in the magnetic moment. Intense magnetization can be induced by intense light and then it is ultimately capable of providing a capacitive power source.
It’s not just a difference in how light is used for power, but also how those power sources are constructed. Existing solar cell technology requires expensive semiconductors, but Rand’s research shows that they can achieve the same efficiency rates of industrial solar cells using glass alone. This could lead to cheaper, easier to produce method for harnessing the sun’s power.
Despite the breakthrough research, it’s still going to be some time before this technology is powering anything outside of a lab. There are some technical hurdles to cross, such as focusing the light to an intensity where energy can be produced, but first and foremost is proving the theory. With their data, Rand and his team plan to focus on creating power from laser light over this summer, and then moving on to sunlight.