A team of researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has developed the first of its kind solar-powered, integrated window system that could significantly reduce dependency on the same energy grid that caused the biggest power outage in U.S. history. Designed to function as a shading system, the Dynamic Shading Window System (DSWS) uses a newly developed solar-energy technology to convert the sun's light and diverted heat into storable energy that can be used to also efficiently heat, cool, and artificially light the same office building.

Developed primarily for commercial buildings, the DSWS blocks the harshest rays while allowing the most pleasing daylight to stay in a building's interior.

"Our system, which can be incorporated into existing commercial buildings as well as new ones, could become a significant part in the development of an overall energy plan to reduce dependence on the national power grid. This could save businesses -- the biggest consumers of energy -- untold utility costs and significantly reduce U.S. need for fossil fuels," said Anna Dyson, assistant professor of architecture who co-developed the DSWS.

The DSWS system is made of clear plastic panels that fit in between two panes of glass. On each panel are dozens of small, pyramid-shaped units, or "modules," made from semi-translucent focusing plastic lenses, that track the motion of the sun. Sensors, embedded in the walls or the roof, ensure that the units are always facing the sun to capture all incoming rays while at the same time deflecting harsh, unwanted rays from a building's interior. Each unit holds a miniaturized photovoltaic (PV), or solar-cell, device used to collect light and heat that is then transferred into useable energy to run the motors, also embedded in the building's interior walls. The remaining energy is used for heat, air conditioning, and artificial lighting. The surplus energy can be directly and automatically distributed through wires inside a building's walls, or can be stored in a group of batteries, for later use.

"This solar-powered technology will provide the typical business office the most superior lighting available -- natural daylight. It will allow for better views outside your window that are no longer hidden by a standard shade or obscured by penetrating glare," said Dyson.

Systems, such as the DSWS, that would seem futuristic just a few years ago are becoming a reality because of the advent of thinner, "smarter" materials. These new materials -- many of which are being researched and developed at Rensselaer -- are allowing researchers to "shrink" existing technologies to make new compact systems that are more effective and visually unobtrusive. For instance, the typical four-feet-by-four-feet silicon solar panels have been pared down to one square centimeter. These tiny solar cells are one of the new technologies being incorporated in the DSWS.