Students and researchers at the George Washington University (GWU) in Washington have announced the completion of the first solar powered walkway. A recent exhibition of the walkway demonstrated a system comprised of a solar powered trellis and a walkway made up of 27 slip-resistant panels. The semi-transparent panels include embedded photovoltaic components that allow them to capture energy from sunlight.
The team responsible for the design and build phase of the project created the panels with a combined average peak capacity of 400W. That energy is used to power a system of LED lights that illuminate the walkway from below. The system ostensibly eliminates the need for some of the overhead lighting currently used for walkway illumination.
According to sources, the GWU project was undertaken in partnership with Onyx Solar. The two have been working together on the technology since 2011. GWU officials have expressed their enthusiasm in collaborating with Onyx Solar to develop new photovoltaic technologies. Onyx officials have reciprocated by hailing GWU's efforts to be a leader in developing practical uses for sustainable energy innovations.
Despite the ear-to-ear smiles regarding the solar walkway announcement, questions remain as to its practical and commercial viability. A solar powered walkway may indeed reduce the need for overhead lighting powered by more traditional sources, but can it be done cost effectively?
If the walkway is too expensive to build, it is not likely to enjoy widespread acceptance its creators are hoping to see. And in all things technology, the secret to success is creating things with commercial appeal, otherwise it's impossible to get funding.
What It Means for the Technology Sector
We applaud George Washington University and Onyx Solar for their efforts in developing the solar walkway. In fact, it might even be a thrill to attend one of the promotional events they hold in the future. Yet, what they've accomplished is not likely to offer any real benefit to the technology sector at present.
The focus of the solar walkway is the photovoltaic principle of converting sunlight into direct electrical current that can be used to power, in this case, a series of LED lights however, the inefficiency of photovoltaic makes it impractical for use on a large scale. The future of solar energy is perhaps more likely in solar thermal – a concept that uses ultraviolet rays to heat a liquid, which can then be used for space heat or electrical generation.
Solar thermal is the type of technology the IT sector needs to look at for meeting the power and cooling needs of the future. Solar thermal is more productive, more efficient and more cost-effective in the long run.
In the meantime, George Washington University and Onyx Solar will likely try to develop their technology in a way that has broader commercial appeal. That may mean installing the panels throughout university buildings where there is enough natural light to make their use feasible. It might also mean installing them outdoors, campus-wide. We'll just have to wait and see…