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Flipping the switch: Trends in green applications

Photonics Spectra
Jan 2010
Anne L. Fischer, Senior Editor,

From stand-alone solar power stations to recycling systems that use machine vision, systems that were futuristic visions not so long ago are real-world applications today.

Vision sensors won’t take out the trash, but they are helping to sort it with recycling systems such as this short-wavelength infrared-based solution. Courtesy of Eagle Vizion.

Personal power stations using alternate energy are emerging from the lab and landing on the farm. SunPods Solar Smart Technology Systems from San Jose, Calif.-based SunPods Inc. are examples of how solar energy can be put to use in a single application. These self-contained solar generators run on or off the grid to power wells, irrigation and water-distribution systems. They have polycrystalline or monocrystalline photovoltaic modules and are rated at 200 to 220 W. Their use is aimed at farms and ranches as well as at any off-grid project or area where power is unreliable.

Solar energy is being generated from roofing materials that blend right in. Shown here are Powerhouse shingles from Dow Chemical Co.

LED lightbulbs

The Edison bulb, or the incandescent, is on its way out after a 130-year run. As countries impose restrictions on the sale of incandescents (some have banned them entirely) or impose efficiency regulations on lightbulb use, compact fluorescent lightbulbs and LEDs are stepping into the limelight.

And, just in time, LED bulbs that fit into standard sockets are appearing on the market. The usual name brands have come out with 60-W bulbs, and then there are startups such as Netherlands-based Lemnis Lighting and Florida-based EarthLED – and there are sure to be more. The price is around $40 to $50 for a 60-W equivalent, which is high until you weigh the advantages: They last 40,000 h compared with 15,000 for compact fluorescent lightbulbs; contain no mercury; are dimmable; and are twice as energy-efficient as compact fluorescent lightbulbs (85 percent more than incandescent). Expect prices to drop in the future, too, bringing cost of ownership down even more.

Roofing tiles with solar cells

Solar based on the semiconductor alternative, CIGS (copper indium gallium selenide) has much potential because of a lower cost of manufacturing and greater application potential. Take rooftops as an example. Instead of bolting large silicon-based photovoltaic panels on roofs, solar energy can be drawn from the roofing tiles themselves.

Two US-based companies, Dow Chemical Co. of Midland, Mich., and SRS Energy of Philadelphia, recently announced solar roofing materials. Dow’s Powerhouse tiles look like regular asphalt shingles, but they are small CIGS-based solar panels with an efficiency of what Dow claims to be above 10 percent. The US Department of Energy awarded Dow $20 million to help develop Powerhouse and other building-integrated products, which are manufactured in the company’s Midland facility.

Solé Power Tiles from SRS Energy look like a traditional ceramic roofing tile but are embedded with thin-film amorphous silicon solar cells from United Solar Ovonic of Auburn Hills, Mich.

Machine vision sorts the trash

Recycling is a trend in itself, whether required of corporations through government directives or of individuals through municipalities. The trend is giving rise to myriad machine vision solutions, some of which have such sophisticated sensing ability that they can pick over various materials.

Sensors Unlimited Inc. of Princeton, N.J., part of Goodrich Corp., for example, has indium gallium arsenide short-wavelength infrared detectors and spectrometers at work in plastics and other recycling applications. Less expensive than their cooled detector counterparts, they operate at room temperature without fans or cryogenics, according to Douglas S. Malchow, business development manager for industrial products. He noted that they can capture absorption spectra without any sample preparation (beyond washing the plastics).

In some cases, particularly when only dealing with a couple of plastic types, two or three line-scan cameras are installed, each with bandpass filters that correspond to the key wavelengths that differentiate one plastic type from another. The images then are combined to identify and sort the plastics into the right bins.

These are just a few of the many applications that use state-of-the-art technologies to make a difference. Even more exciting than talking about the potential of green technologies is actually seeing them in use to help reinforce global sustainability efforts.

bandpass filter
A filter with a transmission that is high for a particular band of frequencies, but that falls to low values above and below this band.
The science and technology applied to the creation of low temperatures (i.e., approaching absolute zero).
1. A device designed to convert the energy of incident radiation into another form for the determination of the presence of the radiation. The device may function by electrical, photographic or visual means. 2. A device that provides an electric output that is a useful measure of the radiation that is incident on the device.
A kind of spectrograph in which some form of detector, other than a photographic film, is used to measure the distribution of radiation in a particular wavelength region.  
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