By 2050, it’s estimated that the global population will swell to 9.6 billion people. A major challenge of our time will be providing enough energy to power the planet. Solar energy, the most abundant energy resource on earth, is becoming an increasingly attractive—and affordable—option to meet this challenge.

Members of the MIT community are developing new technologies to harness the power of the sun and provide cleaner, smarter energy solutions.

Tiny, Solar-Powered Sensors

An ultra-low-power circuit developed by MIT engineers is capable of harvesting more than 80% of the solar energy it absorbs. What’s more, this complete “system on a chip” can power devices and charge a battery connected to the devices at the same time. Researchers believe this technology could be key to powering wearables, appliances, vehicles, and other networked devices that comprise the “Internet of Things.”

Solar Technology Inspired by Butterfly Wings

A nonreflective, low-cost coating that allows solar cells to absorb nearly all light and boost efficiency, took first place at an annual competition organized by MIT’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering (DMSE). The inspiration for this winning idea? The transparent wings of the glasswing butterfly. Irregular nanostructures on the surface of the wings prevent them from reflecting light, making them nearly invisible. In addition to solar cells, such technology could also be used to reduce glare on smart phone displays.

Microgrids for Rural Villages

A peer-to-peer power sharing system could bring energy to some of the nearly 1.3 billion people in the world without access to electricity. Working with villagers in India, researchers have created a simple device that allows neighbors to share energy collected from solar panels. The unit can send electricity to other connected devices such as lights or to a storage battery, and provides a billing record by monitoring how much power is going to each user. Field tests of the device began this summer.

Solar-powered Water Pumps for Small Farmers in India

A team from MIT’s Tata Center for Technology and Design has created a solar-powered pump tailored to the irrigation needs of millions of small-acreage farmers in the Ganges River basin. Without access to an electrical grid, an estimated 23 million farmers in eastern India currently rely on expensive diesel pumps or the annual monsoon to water their fields. Researchers believe their more efficient irrigation system will lead to higher crop yields and greater profits for small farmers.

Tandem Solar Cells to Capture More Sunlight

A team from MIT and Stanford University has developed a more effective solar cell by combining two different types of photovoltaic material. Made of silicon and the mineral perovskite, the cell is capable of soaking up energy from the ultraviolet and infrared parts of the solar spectrum. Work is currently underway to increase the efficiency and durability of these tandem cells. Researchers hope their development can one day be used in rooftop solar panels.

Product Reviews for the Developing World

A group in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning has created a Consumer Reports for products designed to help the developing world. In its first report, the Comprehensive Initiative on Technology Evaluation (CITE) evaluated and rated 11 different solar lanterns for sale in Uganda, based on price and features such as runtime, charging time, and brightness. CITE hopes its reports will provide manufacturers and financers with information they can use to better align their products with end users.

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  1. Sometime you might want to let the world know that MIT developed the first solar photovoltaic water pumping systems, the first solar diesel hybrid village power systems, and the first grid-interconnected rooftop PV systems ever.  Ask Nancy Stauffer or Steve Connors at the MITEI.  This all happened over 30 years ago, when most of MIT was focused on “safe”  nuclear power, “clean” coal, and “efficient” gas turbines.

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