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Solar panels line a field in the United States.(Credit: American Public Power Association)

MELBOURNE, Australia — The sun always sets on solar power eventually, right? Not necessarily, according to an astounding new research project. Newly developed technology similar to night-vision goggles may have just made solar power at night a real possibility.

Scientists from the ARC Centre of Excellence in Exciton Science and the University of New South Wales (UNSW Sydney) report a major milestone in thermal capture technology. They’ve developed a device capable of generating electricity from thermal radiation.

The earth’s crust takes in heat from solar radiation when the Sun’s rays are shining down on it, but when night falls all that potentially useful solar energy vanishes into the vastness of space. Now, study authors have successfully tested a new device that takes infrared heat and converts it into electrical power.

During development, the team made use of a power-generation device called a “thermo-radiative diode,” which is quite similar to the technology found in night-vision goggles.

“In the late 18th and early 19th century it was discovered that the efficiency of steam engines depended on the temperature difference across the engine, and the field of thermodynamics was born,” says research leader Exciton Science Associate Investigator Nicholas Ekins-Daukes in a media release. “The same principles apply to solar power – the sun provides the hot source and a relatively cool solar panel on the Earth’s surface provides a cold absorber. This allows electricity to be produced.”

“However, when we think about the infrared emission from the Earth into outer space, it is now the Earth that is the comparatively warm body, with the vast void of space being extremely cold,” he continues. “By the same principles of thermodynamics, it is possible to generate electricity from this temperature difference too: the emission of infrared light into space.”

How much power can scientists generate?

Rune Strandberg, a Norwegian scientist, was the first researcher to consider the theoretical possibility of such a device. Now, scientists at Stanford University are currently conducting their own research on the potential possibilities of collecting thermal energy at night.

To be clear, the successful test put together by the team only produced a very small amount of energy (about 0.001% of a solar cell). At this early stage, though, all that really matters is that the device works.

“We usually think of the emission of light as something that consumes power, but in the mid-infrared, where we are all glowing with radiant energy, we have shown that it is possible to extract electrical power,” Nicholas concludes. “We do not yet have the miracle material that will make the thermoradiative diode an everyday reality, but we made a proof of principle and are eager to see how much we can improve on this result in the coming years.”

The study is published in the journal ACS Photonics.

About John Anderer

Born blue in the face, John has been writing professionally for over a decade and covering the latest scientific research for StudyFinds since 2019. His work has been featured by Business Insider, Eat This Not That!, MSN, Ladders, and Yahoo!

Studies and abstracts can be confusing and awkwardly worded. He prides himself on making such content easy to read, understand, and apply to one’s everyday life.

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9 Comments

  1. Mr. Dana Pelletier says:

    Efficiency of 1 part in 100,000? Several acres of collectors to power a single flashlight bulb? At what cost? Come back to me when you’ve got at least 1% efficiency. Then we’ll talk. You want to use the Earth’s heat? Geothermal. Very tired of these fantasy concepts that go nowhere. Try living in the real world.

    1. Curt B says:

      Consider where we were in the year 1900…so you’re suggestion is..to do nothing.

      We learned to split atoms. We except that as fact because it is factual. We’ve learned to drill for hard rock oil/gas and except that as fact because it is fact.

      We went to the moon..fact. And I will tell you I heard all the naw sayers on that it wasn’t possible…but it’s real.

      So where will human kind be in another 100 years? Where we are today? I say Nay Nay.

      1. Yohan Smythe says:

        We went to the moon? Now you are reaching. NOT fact.

    2. Mr. Common Sense says:

      The article clearly describes this as proof of concept. Its purpose isn’t to “power a light bulb” at this stage, but to prove the POSSIBILITY.

  2. f2000 says:

    “but in the mid-infrared, where we are all glowing with radiant energy, we have shown that it is possible to extract electrical power,” ”

    In the future AI machines will farm humans for power.

  3. RLS says:

    This is just basically a Peltier device used without input energy. Peltier principle works both ways – put a voltage across it and one side will cool and the other side releases heat. Heat one side and let the other be in a colder environment and a small amount of energy will be created. These devices are not very efficient but are used in wine chillers and portable beverage coolers. So really nothing new under the Sun.

  4. :0 says:

    A real good source of fuel to generate electricity is all the hot air and gas most politicians expel every time they open their big mouths, especially those in Sacramento and Washington DC

  5. RC Ayers says:

    Just put a solar cell under each street light and collect it, store it. Easier than this new technology, doable right now!!

  6. Someone says:

    This technology has been around for decades, needs a large thermal differential to work, and is extremely inefficient. Physics keeps this from being a viable source of power generation. This is a very uninformed article that was probably single sourced with little to no background research performed.