The Swiss city of Lausanne is famous not only for its scenic lakes and majestic peaks but also for its innovation and excellence in research. The Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) has long been a leader in scientific research, and its reputation as a center of academic excellence continues to grow.
One of the most exciting developments in recent years is the EPFL’s research on solar energy. Not only have scientists discovered new ways to harness the power of the sun, but they are also making fundamental breakthroughs in materials science, chemistry, and physics that will have a significant impact on future generations.
To learn more about the exciting developments at the EPFL, let’s take a closer look at their research on solar energy and what our future might hold.
Revolutionising Solar Energy
The sun is the most natural and abundant source of energy available to us, and more and more people are realizing the benefits of generating their own power using solar energy technology.
When the sun shines, its rays are converted into kinetic energy which powers our devices. Unfortunately, the process of conversion is inefficient, with only around 1% of the energy from the sun being harnessed by our devices.
That’s why solar energy technology is considered to be one of the most promising areas of future research, and the EPFL is at the forefront of scientific innovation and exploration, contributing to fundamental breakthroughs in materials science, chemistry, and physics.
The potential for solar energy technology is immense, and if we learn to harness the power of the sun more efficiently, we could achieve a massive improvement in our day-to-day lives. The future might not look as bleak as you think – maybe not even bleak at all!
To learn more, check out these resources from the EPFL:
One of the major breakthroughs at the EPFL is the development of new materials that change the way we think about solar energy. Swiss scientists have long been known for their expertise in watchmaking, and they have now taken their expertise in material science and applied it to developing new solar cells.
The Swiss government has funded an office in Lausanne specifically for promoting new ideas and technologies, the ‘Start-up Nation’, which provides business support, as well as scientific and technical expertise to entrepreneurs.
The new solar cells are made of layers of materials that work together to absorb the energy from the sun and convert it into electricity. The most exciting part is that these materials can be combined in a variety of ways to create distinct energy-generating devices, each one with its own set of advantages.
The layered structure of the new solar cells means that their efficiency can be increased which increases the amount of electricity that can be extracted from the sun. They also mean that these devices can be made more flexible, which could allow them to be integrated into almost any device or system that generates electricity. Finally, the unique combination of materials and designs found in these devices enable them to operate at higher temperatures, which improves their performance.
Funding from the government and private sector is helping to bring new energy sources to market, and the government is also dedicated to supporting research and development in this area, aiming to lessen our dependence on fossil fuels and reduce our carbon footprint. The industry is also becoming more aware of the importance of research in this area, with significant investment in equipment and opportunities for scientists to work together.
The electric engine, also known as the dynamo effect, is one of the defining features of the 19th century, and it is also one of the most significant innovations of the EPFL. This groundbreaking invention allows electricity to be generated on an industrial scale, and it has the potential to change the world as we know it.
In 1876, French scientist Émile Béthue saw the potential of the electric engine and began working to make it a reality. After nearly 30 years of research and development, the first electric engines were built and deployed in Dubendorf, Switzerland, in 1906. Since then, the technology has become even more efficient, with modern dynamos typically generating around 85% of the electricity they consume.
The dynamo effect relies on the movement of magnets and coils of wire to create a current which can be harnessed and converted into electricity. The beauty of the dynamo effect is that it works across a wide range of temperatures, making it ideal for use in low- and high-temperature environments. That means that it could become the dominant power source across industries, generating electricity for use in our homes, in our vehicles, and even in our energy-generating devices.
Over the past century, the efficiency of electric engines has improved as scientists have refined the design and materials used in these devices. As a result, they are now far more efficient than their steam-based counterparts. Not only is this benefiting our environment by reducing our dependence on fossil fuels but it is also changing the way we look at the design and use of machinery.
Today, the world’s first electric locomotive operates in Dubendorf, transporting passengers between the towns of Aarau and Visp. With a maximum speed of 20km/h and a capacity of 500kg, this miniature train demonstrates the feasibility of the electric engine as a viable alternative to fossil fuels. While the electric engine was initially developed for trains, its broad applications are numerous, including generating electricity, performing industrial processes, and even air-conditioning. The possibilities are endless.
Another significant contribution to the development of viable and renewable energy sources comes from the EPFL and its Center for Energy Research (CER); scientists there have developed new ways to generate electricity from wind and water. The Center for Energy Research at the EPFL was originally established in 1969 as a place for scientists to come together to share ideas and to develop new technologies. As well as being a leader in energy research, the CER is also known for its leadership in green chemistry – using only renewable, sustainable materials to create products that can be recycled and have a minimal effect on the environment.
The work of the CER is helping to bring renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power to market. They have developed novel technologies such as tidal power and wave power, storing energy in the Earth during off-peak hours and releasing it when needed. The technologies behind these devices are interesting in themselves but also have the potential to revolutionize our approach to generating electricity.
The CER is responsible for developing and manufacturing many of these energy-harnessing devices, and they do this using a combination of highly specialized magnets, coils, and hydraulic systems that interact to form a water-powered electric generator. These interactions allow the generator to produce electricity even when exposed to high winds, which makes the devices suitable for use in coastal regions and on water bodies such as lakes and oceans. The Earth’s magnetic field produces electric currents in the same way that the movement of electrical charges produces magnetic fields, which the CER has harnessed to generate electricity. Innovative materials such as carbon fiber, KEVLAR (a high-strength fiber developed by DuPont), and aramid have been used in the design of these devices to improve their strength and flexibility while cutting down on their weight – critical for generating power from low-density material such as wind and water.
Flexibility is also a key consideration in the design of solar-energy-harnessing devices, which is why the EPFL is also heavily involved in the design and manufacture of photovoltaic (PV) systems. These are devices that convert sunlight directly into electricity using semiconductors, allowing them to be integrated into our day-to-day lives and used in almost any environment.
PV systems are ideal for use in regions where the sun shines consistently, allowing you to easily generate electricity using nothing more than solar-energy-harnessing devices and batteries. These could be used in our homes or businesses to supply power directly to the places where we need it. They might also be connected to the national grid to supply electricity to areas that lack it.
The development of the PV system and its integration into energy-harnessing devices is a significant achievement, and one that has the potential to significantly reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. This in turn could reduce the damage done to our environment by these fuels, as well as increase the sustainability of our energy sources.
If you’d like to know more, check out these great resources from the EPFL: