Building the future of energy generation

Academics from the University of Exeter’s College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences have developed a clean energy solution for buildings that could revolutionise the construction industry.

Professor Tapas Mallick, Dr Hasan Baig and Jim Williams (Innovation, Impact and Business Commercialisation Manager) have created streamlined solar technology that fits neatly into glass blocks. Facades using the innovative product, called Solar Squared, will not only be able to generate electricity while allowing greater amounts of daylight in, but will also provide improved thermal insulation.

"Buildings consume more than forty per cent of the electricity produced across the globe," says Dr Baig, who is based at the Environment and Sustainability Institute in Cornwall.

"Deployment of standard solar technology is limited by the large area requirement and the negative visual impact. We wanted to overcome these limitations by introducing technologies that become a part of the building's envelope. We now have the capability to build integrated, affordable, efficient, and attractive solar technologies as part of the building's architecture, in places where energy demand is highest, whilst having minimal impact on the landscape and on quality of life."

Solar power is considered one of the greenest sources of energy but its development has been hampered by the high costs of installing photovoltaic panels on buildings and their negative visual impact on building architecture. Making construction products that have embedded solar technology is key to unlocking their real potential.

Solar Squared was developed by the Exeter team through a collaborative project involving feedback and insight offered by Cheshire-based Glass Block Technology Ltd and a number of creative businesses in Cornwall. Jim Williams says: "The collaborative approach involving participants in the glass block industry and professional design agencies working closely with our academics has proved to be a powerful combination." Managed by Jim, product development included work with Falmouth University, Vital Spark Creative and Engine House.

For the past few years, Dr Baig has been working on several novel solar energy technology concepts for building integrated applications. He won an Impact Award in Sustainable Futures at the University of Exeter in 2013 when he was conducting his PhD research, exploring ways to integrate solar technology into windows. A recent Impact Accelerator Award from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) has led the team to focus on glass blocks.

Solar Squared’s patent-pending design consists of an array of optical elements that focus sunlight on small-sized solar cells. These are incorporated within the glass block during their manufacture and collect a large fraction of diffuse components of sunlight, even when place on the vertical plan, making it particularly useful for capturing solar energy in urban areas. The modular design is completely scalable, and allows for seamless architectural integration. The streamlined nature of the technology enables it to be embedded in conventional construction materials, meaning that its applications are myriad.

"Given that we have the know-how of the latest developments in solar, it’s simply about getting the right marriage between the product and the technology," says Dr Baig. "We can tailor it to fit any product, working with the current manufacturing process rather than demanding a change to that process. In this way, we can slot into established manufacturing chains and product markets."

With this type of approach, the implication is that many construction materials deployed on the exterior of buildings could become energy-generating. Potentially, making slight adjustments to the manufacturing process of building materials could have a fundamental impact on the planet’s energy requirements.

There are, however, challenges to be overcome: "One of the issues is its dual function as both an architectural building product and an energy-generating product," says Dr Baig. Communicating the value of multifunctional building integrated photovoltaic products is challenging. People tend to make comparisons with standard solar panels found on roof tops but it’s necessary to also include the value of the underlying building material in order to quantify the value proposition. Put simply, Solar Squared aims be cheaper than standard glass construction blocks plus the cost of electricity. 

There is also a lack of awareness about the potential for such products among customers and, more importantly, architects. One way to remedy the latter is to get the product registered on the Building Information Modelling database, which provides a list of all construction products available, their possible uses, and potential energy savings.

Dr Baig says: "I’m currently in discussion with the National Solar Centre and Building Research Establishment to explore opportunities to add these kind of novel products within the Building Information modelling platforms, which will make the product accessible to architects when designing our future buildings around the world."

The team is currently looking for test sites to demonstrate the effectiveness and potential of Solar Squared and actively seeking investment for their new start up. If you are interested in getting involved, contact: info@buildsolar.co.uk