Across the world, seven times more solar energy falls on the average building than the energy that building uses - including all its heating, lighting and other energy needs.
Each year 10,000 times more energy falls on the planet than us humans use each year. So as temperatures rise, and the polluting fossil fuels become scarcer - why aren't we taking advantage of this?
The simple answer is that the current technology is too expensive.
British scientists are leading a revolutionary project to create an entirely new way of harnessing the sun's rays that, if successful, will revolutionise the way the world uses solar energy. The team made up of chemists and physicists involves scientists from eight UK universities.
This new type of solar panel involves a completely new approach to - new ideas and new science - solar energy with the driving force that it is cheap to produce and install. The new revolutionary technology more closely resembles the way plants collect energy than current man-made solar cells.
This new technology is being referred to in scientific circles as 3rd generation solar panels. The 1st generation were silicon-based solar panels created for the space race. They are high efficiency but high cost - fine as a necessity to power a satellite (which can't be plugged in to anything to charge the batteries) but largely too expensive to use widely on earth.
This led to the second generation which brought the cost down, but the efficiency wasn't as good. However the most precarious issue with the 2nd generation solar cells is that the most highly efficient use cadmium - banned across Europe on safety issues for all applications except solar cells. What happens if the health and safety issues lead to an EU-wide ban in the future?
Until now, there have just been those two options; expensive 1st generation cells, or the limited natural resources of the rare elements indium and gallium and the safety issues of cadium in 2nd generation cells - leaving us somewhat exposed. These new third generation cells being worked on by chemists and Physicists at universities spanning the country from Edinburgh to Bath have the potential to revolutionise what we know of solar panels - they would be high efficiency, AND low cost AND Non-toxic. They could be installed anywhere.
If we really are to move to a low carbon future we need solar technology to radically reduce in price. Currently for example, if you are to put solar panels on your house it will take on average 11 years to pay back the initial cost (assuming you are also selling some back to the grid) or 20 years if you are not selling power to the grid.
This new technology would change all of this, in dull climates such as the UK as well as sunnier climates. For the developing world this would put the technology within reach of aid organisations to produce power on site in refugee camps. For their Governments it would open up the option of their countries leap-frogging fossil power and going straight onto solar power to electrify rural and other communities.
This work is funded by EPSRC as part of the Supergen consortia, with scientists from eight UK Universities
In December 2010, these scientists (part of the supergen consortia) got together in Edinburgh to announce results and share findings.
Currently the major solar panel technologies are expensive to create and the components are relatively difficult to obtain eg dug out the ground or highly processed. Or in high demand (creating high cost) such as indium and gallium which are needed for flat screen TV's and demand from other sectors. The new technology uses titanium dioxide (already used in sum cream) and cheap polymers that are already in use.
The UK Association for Science and Discovery Centres worked with Edinburgh University on the public engagement aspect of the project