Tibetan Buddhist singing bowls inspire more efficient solar cells

There’s no mention as to whether or not Dr Niraj Lal practices any form of meditation or how he came across Tibetan Buddhist singing bowls but somehow he was inspired by them when studying for his PhD at Cambridge University (UK). From a Sept. 8, 2014 news item by Niall Byrne for physorg.com,

The shape of a centuries-old Buddhist singing bowl has inspired a Canberra scientist to re-think the way that solar cells are designed to maximize their efficiency.

Dr Niraj Lal, of the Australian National University,  found during his PhD at the University of Cambridge, that small nano-sized versions of Buddhist singing bowls resonate with light in the same way as they do with sound, and he’s applied this shape to solar cells to increase their ability to capture more light and convert it into electricity.

A Sept. ?, 2014 news release from Australian science communication company, Science in Public, fills in a few more details without any mention of Lal’s meditation practices, should he have any,

“Current standard solar panels lose a large amount of light-energy as it hits the surface, making the panels’ generation of electricity inefficient,” says Niraj. “But if the cells are singing bowl-shaped, then the light bounces around inside the cell for longer”.

Normally used in meditation, music, and relaxation, Buddhist singing bowls make a continuous harmonic ringing sound when the rim of the metal bowl is vibrated with a wooden or other utensil.

During his PhD, Niraj discovered that his ‘nanobowls’ manipulated light by creating a ‘plasmonic’ resonance, which quadrupled the laboratory solar cell’s efficiency compared to a similarly made flat solar cell.

Now, Niraj and his team aim to change all that by applying his singing-bowl discovery to tandem solar cells: a technology that has previously been limited to aerospace applications.

In research which will be published in the November issue of IEEE Journal of Photonics, Niraj and his colleagues have shown that by layering two different types of solar panels on top of each other in tandem, the efficiency of flat rooftop solar panels can achieve 30 per cent—currently, laboratory silicon solar panels convert only 25 per cent of light into electricity, while commercial varieties convert closer to 20 per cent.

The tandem cell design works by absorbing a sunlight more effectively —each cell is made from a different material so that it can ‘see’ a different light wavelength.

“To a silicon solar cell, a rainbow just looks like a big bit of red in the sky—they don’t ‘see’ the blue, green or UV light—they convert all light to electricity as if it was red ,” says Niraj. “But when we put a second cell on top, which ‘sees’ the blue part of light, but allows the red to pass through to the ‘red-seeing’ cell below, we can reach a combined efficiency of more than 30 percent.”

Niraj and a team at ANU are now looking at ways to super-charge the tandem cell design by applying the Buddhist singing bowl shape to further increase efficiency.

“If we can make a solar cell that ‘sees’ more colours and  keeps the right light in the right layers, then we could increase efficiency even further,” says Niraj.

“Every extra percent in efficiency saves you thousands of dollars over the lifetime of the panel,” says Niraj. “Current roof-top solar panels have been steadily increasing in efficiency, which has been a big driver of the fourfold drop in the price for these panels over the last five years.”

More importantly, says Niraj, greater efficiency will allow solar technology to compete with fossil fuels and meet the challenges of climate change and access.

“Electricity is also one of the most enabling technologies we have ever seen, and linking people in rural areas around the world to electricity is one of the most powerful things we can do.”

At the end of the Science in Public news release there’s mention of a science communication competition,

Niraj was a 2014 national finalist of FameLab Australia. FameLab is a global science communication competition for early-career scientists. His work is supported by the Australian Research Council and ARENA – the Australian Renewable Energy Agency.

About FameLab

In 2014, the British Council and Fresh Science have joined forces to bring FameLab to Australia.

FameLab Australia will offer specialist science media training and, ultimately, the chance for early-career researchers to pitch their research at the FameLab International Grand Final in the UK at The Times Cheltenham Science Festival from 3 to 5 June 2014.

FameLab is an international communication competition for scientists, including engineers and mathematicians. Designed to inspire and motivate young researchers to actively engage with the public and with potential stakeholders, FameLab is all about finding the best new voices of science and engineering across the world.

Founded in 2005 by The Times Cheltenham Science Festival, FameLab, working in partnership with the British Council, has already seen more than 5,000 young scientists and engineers participate in over 23 different countries — from Hong Kong to South Africa, USA to Egypt.

Now, FameLab comes to Australia in a landmark collaboration with the British Council and Fresh Science — Australia’s very own science communication competition.

For more information about FameLab Australia, head to www.famelab.org.au

You can find out more about Australia’s Fresh Science here.

Getting back to Dr. Lal, here’s a video he made about his work and where he demonstrates a Tibetan Buddhist singing bowl (this is a very low tech video and the sound quality isn’t great),

Here’s a link to and a citation for Lal’s most recent paper,

Optics and Light Trapping for Tandem Solar Cells on Silicon by Lal, N.N.; White, T.P. ; and Catchpole, K.R. Photovoltaics, IEEE Journal of  (Volume:PP ,  Issue: 99) Page(s): 1 – 7 ISSN : 2156-3381 DOI: 10.1109/JPHOTOV.2014.2342491 Published online 19 August 2014

The paper is behind a paywall but there is open access to Lal’s 2012 University of Cambridge PhD thesis on his approach,

Enhancing solar cells with plasmonic nanovoids by Lal, Niraj Narsey
URI: http://www.dspace.cam.ac.uk/handle/1810/243864 Date:2012-07-03

Hap;y reading!

1 thought on “Tibetan Buddhist singing bowls inspire more efficient solar cells

  1. Pingback: Tripping On Good Vibrations: Cultural Commodification and Tibetan Singing Bowls | Savage Minds

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