The Chicagoist will be launching later but in the meantime please enjoy our archives.

Can You Fight Climate Change with a Coat of Paint?

By JoshMogerman in News on Dec 24, 2011 9:00PM

Sun Backlighting the Sears Tower [FrozenChipmunk]

Notre Dame researchers want to turn your house into a power plant. No, not like the Fisk coal plant in Pilsen. In fact, their vision is quite the opposite, turning every building into a passive solar collector with little more than a paintbrush. And in Chicago, with our monumental skyline and sprawling neighborhoods, the impact could be quite significant.

According to a journal report published this week, the clever scientists in South Bend suspended nanoparticle semi-conductors sheathed in photon-absorbing chemicals into a pasty solution. Slather it onto buildings and when the sun hits the exterior, the electrons start flowing. While the compound is significantly less efficient than silicon panels, it is extremely cheap to produce and covers a lot more surface area. Plus, it would be a lot simpler to install…err, apply that the typical solar array. While the paint is still not ready for the marketplace, the researchers clearly are already thinking in that direction, having christened the paint with the info-mercial worthy name: “Sun-Believable.” (That’s way better than our nerdy suggestion, “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Silicon!”). However, they have only produced yellow and brown paint thus far, so temper your “Curb Appeal” enthusiasm.

Chicago is already shaping up to be a proving ground for non-traditional solar technologies. The Sears Willis Tower is one of the world’s biggest solar guinea pigs as a chunk of its south-facing windows are set to be replaced with new solar-electric glass which could eventually turn the building into a vertical solar farm. Imagine if the rest of the largest building in North America was painted with Sun-Believable, turning the whole structure’s surface into a clean green energy machine. While that vision is not available tomorrow, it is clearly not far off. The Notre Dame solar folks are close and an Australian researcher plans to have his own solar paint ready for market in two years. As the battle against climate change becomes more desperate, innovative tools like these will be essential and will make dense cities like Chicago, with lots and lots and lots of surface area that could soon be producing electricity instead of sucking it up from dirtier sources like coal, important front lines towards a solution.

Here is how the paint works: