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Making Solar Panels That Are Eco But Not Ugly

A Swiss group has unveiled new white solar panels intended to blend in better with the country's architecture.

CSEM's new white solar panels
CSEM's new white solar panels
Fabien Goubet

GENEVA — "You can have the Ford Model T in any color you want, as long as it's black," Henry Ford once said. The same, for too long, has been true for unsightly solar panels.

These models of green power have traditionally been tainted with a dark color — blue or black — because dark shades naturally draw more light to them. But their aesthetic leaves much to be desired.

"Their colors hinder their acceptance by people, especially in Switzerland, where homeowners are particularly reticent about changing the appearance of their houses," says Pascal Affolter, associate director of Lausanne-based Solstis, which designs and installs solar panels.

The Swiss Center for Electronics and Microtechnology (CSEM) has introduced a solution: new white solar panels that are intended to blend in better with buildings and houses.

Its new panels are a spotless white, and the solar-sensitive cell is a model of innovation. It includes a layer of crystalline silicon specifically created to be sensitive to infrared light. The surface is covered with polymers that act as a filter. When the light goes through it, only the infrared passes while the visible spectrum of light is reflected, giving the panels a white shade.

The white coating can be applied either directly onto existing panels or used for new ones. The design is meant to be well integrated into the landscape, but it's not actually more efficient. "After putting this coating on, productivity drops from 18% to around 10%," explains CSEM's Laure-EmmanuellePerret-Aebi.

These new panels are expected to have a lifetime of nearly 30 years, but they'll cost a bit more than their dark-colored counterparts: between $160 and $215 compared to between $107 and $160 for the traditional ones.

With lower productivity and a higher price tag, it's only fair to wonder whether this new product will really attract people. "This new invention can be interesting for architects, especially with the evolution of energy-plus-buildings," says Jean-François Guillemoles, research director of the French National Center for Scientific Research. "The prices may compare to those of the older materials that they will replace."

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Life On "Mars": With The Teams Simulating Space Missions Under A Dome

A niche research community plays out what existence might be like on, or en route to, another planet.

Photo of a person in a space suit walking toward the ​Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah

At the Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah

Sarah Scoles

In November 2022, Tara Sweeney’s plane landed on Thwaites Glacier, a 74,000-square-mile mass of frozen water in West Antarctica. She arrived with an international research team to study the glacier’s geology and ice fabric, and how its ice melt might contribute to sea level rise. But while near Earth’s southernmost point, Sweeney kept thinking about the moon.

“It felt every bit of what I think it will feel like being a space explorer,” said Sweeney, a former Air Force officer who’s now working on a doctorate in lunar geology at the University of Texas at El Paso. “You have all of these resources, and you get to be the one to go out and do the exploring and do the science. And that was really spectacular.”

That similarity is why space scientists study the physiology and psychology of people living in Antarctic and other remote outposts: For around 25 years, people have played out what existence might be like on, or en route to, another world. Polar explorers are, in a way, analogous to astronauts who land on alien planets. And while Sweeney wasn’t technically on an “analog astronaut” mission — her primary objective being the geological exploration of Earth — her days played out much the same as a space explorer’s might.

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