With their new glass blocks with innovative embedded photovoltaic technology, researchers from the University of Exeter (UK) aim to convert traditional building construction materials into solar energy generators.
The power-generating solar blocks, which their inventors compare to Tesla’s solar tiles, can be integrated in new construction or retrofitted into existing buildings and have better thermal insulation properties than traditional glass blocks used in construction.
The BIPV and sustainability experts from the University of Exeter have spun out a startup company — called Build Solar — to produce and market the blocks.
“Build Solar aims to convert traditional building construction materials into energy generators by embedding innovative photovoltaic technology into them,” says Dr Hasan Baig, founder of Build Solar and research fellow at Exeter’s Environment and Sustainability Institute. “Our first patent-pending product, Solar Squared, transforms the widely used glass blocks into a multifunctional product that provides electricity, daylighting and improved thermal insulation.”
The expert notes that typical building-integrated photovoltaics (BIPV) available on the market today are available as standard solar panels with transparency but are not actual construction products that can be integrated within the buildings, yet. “This is the uniqueness of our product,” he emphasizes. “We have seamlessly integrated solar technology into an existing construction product.”
Advantages of Solar Squared over previous BIPV approaches
“The most important advantage of our product is its history in the construction industry and its route to market,” Baig says. Instead of developing BIPV products as panels, his team has incorporated its technology within an existing construction material and transformed it into an energy-harvesting product.
Build Solar has achieved some early results with prototypes of the solar glass blocks, which they are currently optimizing. “We are optimizing three different things at the same time, namely electricity production, daylighting and thermal insulation,” Baig reports. “We are thinking of having options within the products wherein architects can decide the priority based on the application within the buildings.”
Making Solar Squared commercially viable
Baig stresses that it would be wrong to compare the performance of these new solar glass blocks with existing solar panels solely in terms of their electrical performance and cost efficiency. “Having solar energy collection integrated into the building envelope as part of the design replaces conventional building envelope materials with a smart and multifunctional technology that not only serves its original purpose but also has a financial payback through electricity generation and energy savings,” he points out, adding, though, that they have indeed set a target to compete with existing transparent BIPV products in terms of the electrical performances to make them commercially viable.
Key applications for Solar Squared will mostly be on the exterior of the buildings and include walls, skylights and rooftops of commercial buildings, shopping malls, recreation spots like waterparks, parking stations, bus stops and so forth.
Impact on future of BIPV and the way we use solar energy
According to the expert, 60% of global carbon emissions are caused by buildings. “Our vision is to challenge this adverse situation through the concept of net-zero-energy buildings.” In a net-zero-energy building, the total amount of energy used on an annual basis is roughly equal to the amount of renewable energy created on the site.
Baig considers glass one of the most effective building material today and says combining solar technology within glass products opens a number of opportunities for the BIPV sector. “We have channelled solar technology in a typically available construction product by not only maintaining its primary functionalities but also transforming it into a further better product which can pay for itself in a few years’ time,” he says, further emphasizing that his team’s innovation would have a strong impact if buildings would become a source of revenue rather than a dead investment, as he puts it.
A future of energy independence
“As an innovator there is immense excitement seeing the interest the product has instilled in the last few days,” Baig says, revealing that he and his colleagues are now even more motivated to pursue their belief in developing technologies that can help in transforming the future: “Energy Independence is a key to unlock several challenges we see in the global environment. Being able to contribute to this is a great motivation in its own.”
Seeking investments and international partners to market the product globally, Baig believes likeminded people who share the vision of transforming buildings from energy consumers to energy generators can help to take the technology further. He says he and his team, which includes Professor Tapas Mallick, Clean Technologies Chair in the Environment and Sustainability Institute at Exeter, is thankful for the interest from different parts of the globe and the people who have provided them test sites in different locations.
Written by Sandra Henderson, research editor Solar Novus Today