New invention turns food waste into solar energy
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Carvey Ehren Maigue, an engineering student at Mapúa University in Manila, Philippines, has won the first James Dyson Sustainability award for his work in developing solar panels that can extract UV light using fruit and vegetable food scraps.
The prestigious James Dyson Award is an international design engineering award that challenges engineering students and recent graduates to solve a complex global problem.
In 2020, the Sustainability award was introduced as a way to highlight the role engineering will play in helping to solve environmental challenges. Funded by the James Dyson Foundation, the sustainability winner receives $35,000 as a prize to further develop his/her research.
Carvey was the first to win the Sustainability award with his invention, AuREUS, a solar panel that creates solar energy using fruit and vegetable extracts. Inspired by Elon Musk’s tenacity and vision, Carvey hopes his invention will provide a practical solution to fight climate change that can be used around the globe.
One cloudy day, Carvey noticed his glasses were tinted black - which meant they were still detecting UV light from the sun. This observation wound up being the inspiration for his groundbreaking invention.
The thing with traditional photovoltaic (PV) panels is that they can only absorb direct sunlight and miss out on the ultraviolet (UV) light that is emitted on cloudy days. Carvey’s invention, the AuREUS solar panels, have the ability to capture this UV light.
Because they can absorb UV light in addition to direct sunlight, AuREUS panels can generate electricity from up to 50% of the light (sunlight and UV light) that hits them. Standard PV solar panels can only generate electricity from 15-22% of the light (sunlight) hitting them.
The AuREUS panels were named after the Northern Lights phenomenon, Aurora Borealis, because of the similar physics that cause both the Aurora Borealis to glow in the night sky and the AuREUS panels to absorb UV light rays.
The Northern Lights are a common occurrence above the Arctic Circle and are caused by a reaction between light and gas particles within the atmosphere. Image source: Time.com
The Aurora Borealis occurs when luminescent, or light-emitting particles in the atmosphere (usually in the form of oxygen molecules), absorb UV or gamma rays from the sun. The collision of these particles causes them to be seen as visible light.
The idea behind AuREUS panels is similar.
One of the most important components of Carvey’s invention is that it is sourced from food waste.
Organic luminescent compounds are derived from fruits and vegetables and these compounds have the ability to turn high energy ultraviolet waves into visible light. Carvey then uses AuREUS solar panels to convert this light into electricity.
Bioluminescent particles are extracted from fruits and vegetables and are used to absorb UV rays missed by traditional PV solar panels. Image source: dezeen.com
Because of their ability to capture UV light from any direction, AuREUS panels can be stacked vertically and used as power-generating windows for skyscrapers. In fact, by using AuREUS panels instead of glass windows, entire buildings can become solar energy farms.
The Montreal Convention Center uses a different type of solar panels, the Astralis solar wall, but offers a view of what AuREUS can look like when utilized in building design. Image source: dyson.com
AuREUS helps advance sustainability practices in two ways, one by converting the sun into energy and two, by using waste crops to create the panels.
Within the United States, up to 40% of food is wasted, and globally, farmers will face issues stemming from lower yields from unviable crops due to climate change. Many countries' yields will decrease due to unpredictable rain patterns, drought, and excess heat.
When thrown out, waste crops emit methane, a heat-trapping gas, when they decompose. And because these crops were not purchased, this leads to lost profits for farmers. If these crops are instead purchased from the farmers and used as a resource to create AuREUS panels, this will not only reduce pollution and food waste, but help farmers earn a better living, as well.
Carvey’s next step for AuREUS is to create clothing fiber and stronger material to be retrofitted to cars. If AuREUS can be produced at scale for use in buildings and as traditional solar panels, they will serve as a massive disruptor for the solar industry.
The solar industry has a well-developed pipeline of manufacturers, suppliers, and installers; a pipleine which can be used to help AuREUS reach both home solar and utility solar markets. In spite of this promising technology, for now, traditional PV panels are the most viable option for home solar installations.