What used to be an unfeasible alternative energy source due to expense and inefficiency is taking major steps toward becoming a dependable energy source. This year, researchers around the world have made some major advancements in the technology, changing the opinions of many regarding the role solar power will play in the future.

Scientists in Germany revealed to us this year that when we smile, we’re showing off a natural light collector, which resides inside dentin, the hard, bone-like material that forms the main part of teeth. This led them to a new method for harvesting sunlight.

Apparently, tooth structure bears similarities to photonic crystals, which allow certain wavelengths to enter and block others. They used it as a model for a design of solar concentrator arrays. They mount the tooth-like structured arrays on silicon, which eliminate the angle factor in solar power collection. The method would prove vital in areas where direct sunlight is less than abundant. The example the scientists gave was Antarctica.

Researchers in Switzerland developed a dye-sensitized solar cell that reaches the highest efficiency to date. The new cells are composed of an ultrathin film of nano-sized semiconductor crystals, which show 11 percent efficiency. In comparison, most new solar cells have efficiencies between 4 and 5 percent, according to Michael Graetzel, Ph.D., a chemist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Lausanne. The cells are so thin, prospective uses include coating windows on homes or tents for soldiers in the field to provide power.

Researchers at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., have found a way to boost the efficiency of solar cells with carbon nanotubes. In some cases, efficiency rose from 5 to 10 percent. The advantage of this method is it can be added to dye-sensitized solar cells to enhance the boost even more.

In themselves these developments aren’t that staggering; however, all together, they improve solar energy technology to levels where they are almost becoming mainstream. The technology appears as if it will continue to improve until it becomes a viable market and will potentially become a commonplace installation.            EC