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Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Academics & Research

Professor invents self-cleaning solar panels

The Central Plant at UH is fit with solar panels.  |  Hendrick Rosemond/The Daily Cougar

The Central Plant at UH is fit with solar panels. | Hendrick Rosemond/The Daily Cougar

According to leading solar panel distribution company Heliotex, LLC., cleaning solar panels with commercial products such as dishwashing soap is ineffective, damaging to the building it’s on, harmful to surrounding wildlife, dangerous for the one cleaning, and the narrow pH range associated with solar panel cells makes some products corrosive to the frame.

Seamus Curran, UH director of the Institute for NanoEnergy, has a solution. He is now undergoing the patent process for his technology that makes solar panels more efficient through the maintenance of their clean surfaces.

“Cleaning solar panels is expensive, and a dirty solar panel can reduce its power capabilities by up to 30 percent,” Curran said.

The self-cleaning nano-hydrophobic layer, named the StormCell, that Curran developed with Research Associate Professor Rebecca Forrest and Research Professor Abdelhak Bensaoula is long lasting, which helps to cut costs in the long run.

“The technology is a more cost effective way of ensuring maximum energy output,” Curran said.

“Essentially the innovation allows improving the efficiency and lowering the maintenance of any photovoltaic system. The proprietary coating he has developed allows solar panels to be used in harsh environments — dust, salt, etc. — with minimum performance degradation,” Bensaoul said in an email.

In June, the products were tested at the Dublin Institute for Technology in Ireland, and the results seem promising, Curran said. Further testing began Aug. 10 in North Carolina and is still ongoing.

“The one thing I was somewhat fearful of was putting coating on panels in the real world,” Curran said.

“We have the coatings on 24 solar panels that are being environmentally tested in light, rain and pollen. I am very happy to say that we have survived in the environment, and the panels are producing lots of power.”

His product is now licensed by C-Voltaics, a start-up energy company at UH. The self-cleaning technology is being used at UH, New Mexico State and Trinity College, Curran’s alma mater.

In theory, the versatility of the product also allows it to be used on a number of different surfaces. Curran is in the process of perfecting a solar powered generator that can be used in emergency situations.

“When my wife suggested that we should put solar on wheels during Hurricane Ike, I really went back to the drawing board and the whole solar equation,” Curran said.

“The proprietary coatings professor Curran is developing can be integrated with other ongoing (research and development) on campus such as initiatives in the colleges of Architecture, Engineering and Natural Sciences & Mathematics to create innovative solutions in the renewable energy fields,” Bensaoul said in an email.

Additionally, Curran is also engaged in research of solar cells made of plastic.

“(The plastic cells are) incredibly thin, less than 100 nanometers thick, but not very efficient. They don’t carry electrical charge very well and they are not close to commercialization,” Curran said.

Though still in the experimental stage, these cells could mean a lot to the future of green energy, a cause well-associated with UH.

“These type of solar cells are considered the third generation of solar technology,” Curran said.

Additional reporting by Julie Heffler.

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