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Chameleons may hold key to ultra efficient solar PV

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Every week there are good news stories about breakthroughs in solar power and other renewables around the world. Australia’s media often ignores these stories, but this week it has picked up on one about Australian research.

University of Melbourne scientist Dr Devi Stuart-Fox is studying why and how Australian bearded dragons change colour.

The CSIRO says that these insights could be used to design pigments for capturing the sun’s energy and turning it into photovoltaic power.

I have written previously about Australia’s stunning record of achievement in solar PV research. The UNSW, ANU and CSIRO have been major drivers of solar technology for nearly four decades.

America’s National Center for Photovoltaics at NREL regularly updates its excellent graph of the progress of solar PV cell efficiencies, grouped according to technology type. Here is the March 2012 chart: Best Research-Cell Efficiencies

If you look at the orange lines in the bottom right corner, these show the exotic, emerging technologies such as organic dyes. This is where cells derived from dragon skin would sit.

It would be quite a story if the next generation of solar power technology is based on the chemicals that chameleons and Australian lizards use to change the colour of their skin.

I am particularly drawn to this story because when I was a boy I wanted to sponsor a lion at the Melbourne Zoo, but it cost thousands of dollars a year, so I chose the most interesting animal that matched my budget –Pogona vitticeps, the inland bearded dragon.  

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  • Aalan Pears

    Back in the early 1970s, a university friend was doing a PhD on goannas at ANU. What puzzled him was how cold blooded goannas could become active before most other animals. I suggested that it could be because they were able ot absorb solar radiation better than other animals – this would warm them up quicker and give them an advantage regarding catching food.

    Sure enough, when he talked the ANU solar people into measuring the absorption, emission and reflection characteristics of goanna skin they found it was a very good net collector of solar radiation. Up until that time, researchers had assumed that most heat came from conduction or was absorbed from warm rocks goannas tended to lie on.

    Yep, we can learn a lot from nature! So these researchers are probably onto something interesting.

  • That is a great story. Was that particular result ever published or cited anywhere?