‘A key renewable energy technology’

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"Even on a hot day, the radiative cooler is cold to the touch."

Photo Credit: Penn State University

Researchers at Penn State University have developed a method of using solar energy and the incredibly cold temperatures of outer space to create both renewable energy and cooling capacity, Tech Xplore reported.

The researchers’ findings were published in the scientific journal Cell Reports Physical Science under the title: “Simultaneous subambient daytime radiative cooling and photovoltaic power generation from the same area.”

The method developed by the Penn State researchers harvests solar energy in a solar cell (like normal) but also directs heat away from Earth using a process called “radiative cooling.” This sends infrared light directly into outer space (which the researchers refer to as the “cold universe”) instantaneously without warming the surrounding air. 

As the scientists explained, combining solar harvesting with radiative cooling created a method that is more than the sum of its parts — working in tandem to generate both electricity and cooling capacity for things like refrigerators or air conditioning.

“Based on these experimental results, using the two harvesters together has the potential to significantly outperform a bare solar cell, which is a key renewable energy technology,” said assistant professor of mechanical engineering Linxiao Zhu, who led the research. 

“At night and during the day, the radiative cooler works as a 24/7 natural air conditioner,” Pramit Ghosh, a doctoral student in mechanical engineering at Penn State and the study’s first author, explained. “Even on a hot day, the radiative cooler is cold to the touch … At the same time and in the same place, we can exploit these renewable resources together, 24 hours a day.”

Creating more sustainable ways of generating cooling capacity is crucial to our clean energy future — air conditioners alone are expected to generate well over 100 million metric tons (110 million tons) of air pollution between now and 2050 in some parts of the world. As our planet continues to overheat, air conditioner usage will continue to rise.

Since telling people to turn off their air conditioners and swelter in the heat is not a particularly reasonable or realistic ask (although some governments are) it is important that we continue to develop and invest in new, more efficient, and sustainable versions of this technology. It sounds like the new tech from the Penn State researchers is exactly that.

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