TOKYO: Imagine a future where the glass windows and walls of buildings such as homes and offices can directly harness solar energy in place of unsightly and space-consuming solar panels.
This reality is just years away, with the technology developed by Japanese electronics giant Panasonic currently being used in a trial project in Fujisawa, south of Tokyo.
The idea is to enable buildings in crowded urban jungles to serve as discreet mega solar power generators, Panasonic group chief technology officer Tatsuo Ogawa said in an interview on Nov 17.
“We aim to create an energy-generating glass that allows power generation in any area where glass building materials are used,” Ogawa said.
Panasonic prints perovskite – a transparent or tinted alternative material to silicon that is said to be better at absorbing light – directly onto glass using an inkjet coating method. This allows ultra-thin solar cells to be embedded in unconventional spaces, such as windows and walls, it said.
The company is now working to resolve potential vulnerabilities. Moisture damage, for one, is pre-empted by adding a second glass sheet.
“The solar cells must be durable enough, because they are meant to last for decades, and we must make it easy for construction companies to use the modules,” Ogawa said.
“On top of that, we must make sure the electricity collection and management system is reliable.”
This is one of the green technologies that Panasonic is pursuing under its Green Impact environmental vision, in which it has pledged to achieve “virtually net-zero” carbon emissions by 2030.
To this end, Panasonic is leading Japan’s push for the idea of “avoided emissions” to be considered an international standard, and will make its case at the upcoming COP28 climate change conference in Dubai from Nov 30 to Dec 12.
The Greenhouse Gas Protocol framework that provides emissions accounting standards used by companies globally tracks progress towards carbon neutrality on three fronts: directly from a company’s own operations; from the energy it buys; and from the rest of its value chain.
But “avoided emissions”, Ogawa argues, is a necessary metric to more accurately track a company’s overall carbon impact, taking into account how it enables others in society to slash their emissions.
The existing framework is disadvantageous to manufacturers like Panasonic. While it is known for consumer products like washing machines and televisions, Panasonic also produces industry electronics such as car batteries and robots.
Manufacturing car batteries is highly carbon-intensive – even for the greenest electric vehicles (EVs) – and as such, the current protocol holds Panasonic accountable for the significant emissions from its factories.
Panasonic’s main EV client is Tesla. Each Tesla EV reportedly avoids the equivalent of 50 tonnes of carbon dioxide over its lifetime.
Panasonic’s push for “avoided emissions” to be a globally acceptable standard is backed by the Japanese government, though critics say the idea amounts to greenwashing and will give manufacturers a free pass from developing greener processes.
The counterargument, however, is that the world would be worse off if companies were to quit the EV business altogether.
Nonetheless, Panasonic plans to reduce the carbon footprint of battery manufacturing by 50 per cent by March 2031 from 2022 levels, through new methods such as replacing metals like cobalt and nickel, which emit greenhouse gases when extracting from ore.
Panasonic aims to slash emissions by more than 300 million tonnes by 2050, which amounts to 1 per cent of total global emissions today. Two-thirds of this would come from “avoided emissions”, achieved through existing businesses like car batteries and hydrogen fuel cells, as well as new ones.
Panasonic is also in the race to develop all-solid-state batteries, which can store more energy, focusing on their use in drones and industrial robots to extend their performance on a single charge.
These materials developed for solid-state batteries may be applied to automotive uses, Ogawa added.
Industry pioneer Toyota said in June that it will release an EV powered by such batteries – which are expected to more than double a car’s driving range on a single charge – as early as 2027.
The company is also in the business of materials development, creating a new material, kinari, that has a texture akin to plastic but the qualities of wood.
It is made of 85 per cent cellulose, and studies are ongoing to create a plant-based resin for the remaining 15 per cent, so that the material can be fully biodegradable.
It has also succeeded in extracting high-growth promoting components from microbes to create Novitek, a biomolecule spray that can boost harvest yields by up to 40 per cent without relying on chemical fertilisers and pesticides. This will be commercialised, starting in Japan, from 2024.
“We want to build a society where human activity and the improvement of global environmental sustainability are compatible, forming a virtuous circle,” Ogawa said. - The Straits Times/ANN