Relying on advanced materials as perovskites and single-walled carbon nanotubes, the new technology responds to heat by transforming from transparent to tinted. As the window darkens, it generates electricity. The color change is driven by molecules (methylamine) that are reversibly absorbed into the device.
When solar energy heats up the device, the molecules are driven out, and the device is darkened. When the sun is not shining, the device is cooled back down, and the molecules re-absorb into the window device, which then appears transparent.
The NREL-developed demonstration device allows an average of 68% of light in the visible portion of the solar spectrum to pass through when it’s in a transparent, or bleached, state. When the window changes color—a process that took about 3 minutes of illumination during testing—only 3% is allowed through the window.
“There is a fundamental tradeoff between a good window and a good solar cell,” said Lance Wheeler, a scientist at NREL. “This technology bypasses that. We have a good solar cell when there’s lots of sunshine and we have a good window when there’s not.”
The proof-of-concept paper published in Nature Communications established a solar power conversion efficiency of 11.3%. “There are thermochromic technologies out there but nothing that actually converts that energy into electricity,” Wheeler said. He is the lead author of the paper, “Switchable Photovoltaic Windows Enabled by Reversible Photothermal Complex Dissociation from Methylammonium Lead Iodide.”
His co-authors, all from NREL, are David Moore, Rachelle Ihly, Noah Stanton, Elisa Miller, Robert Tenent, Jeffrey Blackburn, and Nathan Neale.
The path to commercialization of the technology was explored last year during a two-month program called Energy I-Corps. Teams of researchers are paired with industry mentors to learn what customers want of the technology and develop viable ways to reach the marketplace. Lance Wheeler and Robert Tenent, the program lead for window technology at NREL and co-author on the paper, teamed up to develop a market strategy for a product they called SwitchGlaze.
Wheeler said the technology could be integrated into vehicles, buildings, and beyond. The electricity generated by the solar cell window could charge batteries to power smartphones or on-board electronics such as fans, rain sensors, and motors that would open or close the windows as programmed.