How Polar Bears Are Inspiring Advancements in Solar Power Efficiency

by | Dec 27, 2021 | Blog

A polar bear sitting in a snowbank with its two cubs

Summary

  • Solar energy is one of the most abundant renewable energy resources globally. However, the large-scale use of solar power has been limited to climates, causing a significant decrease in its efficiency level across high-latitude climate zones.
  • Canadian researchers are looking to develop bioinspired solar power systems inspired by the fact that nature, through evolution, develops thermal harnessing and insulation strategies meant to work effectively even in northern communities.
  • Polar bears have become the subject of many studies because of their potential role in advanced solar power generation. The hollow fur of polar bears may be instrumental in developing more efficient solar energy technologies in the country.

Introduction

The efficiency levels of solar power plants largely depend on climatic circumstances and the quality of the panels used in the system.

The amount of solar energy that reaches the Earth’s surface varies from one place to another. Theoretically, the sun’s vertical rays strike directly at the equator, also known as the “sunbelt.” Equatorial countries and territories receive greater thermal energy from the sun. However, the inclination of the Earth’s rotational axis causes variations in its climatic zones and the alternation of the seasons connected to them.

On the flip side, the sun’s rays strike the surface of both the Arctic (North Pole) and the Antarctic (South Pole) portions of the Earth in a slant position, spreading the rays over a wider area. The broader the scope of the sun’s rays, the less heat energy an area receives and the colder it becomes.

The efficiency levels of solar power plants largely depend on climatic circumstances and the quality of the panels used in the system. Governments and organizations find ways to address solar power problems caused by excessive icing during winter because of the cold climate and shading conditions in Northern-hemisphere countries. However, contrary to common belief, low temperatures can be a great advantage in solar energy production.

Notably, animals living in the northern regions like polar bears have inspiring adaptations to survive climate extremes in their environment. This article evaluates polar bears’ unique thermal and optical adaptations and how these adaptive strategies support innovative solar power generation.

How Polar Bears Contribute to Solar Power Improvements

Research shows that the pelt of polar bears acts as a translucent insulation device that collects and absorbs diffuse light in their skin, where it is likely converted into heat.

Polar bears are the largest bear species on the planet and the Arctic’s top predator, known for their incredible strength and endurance. Their Latin name, Ursus maritimus, translates to “sea bear.” They live around the ocean but predominantly on the sea ice. Canada is home to approximately 60 to 80% of the total polar bear population across global polar regions.

Believe it or not, polar bears may bring in some potential benefits to high-latitude solar power innovations, helping save their ecosystem from the adverse effects of climate change.

Despite the cooler temperatures in polar regions, the sun can still deliver energy to solar panels through ice, raindrops and clouds. Cold ambient conditions result in diffuse light, the indirect sunlight that is scattered naturally by ice, rain and clouds throughout the atmosphere to reach the ground from all sides. Solar panels can use diffuse light in the form of radiation to generate energy.

Research shows that the pelt of polar bears acts as a translucent insulation device that collects and absorbs diffuse light in their skin, where it is likely converted into heat. Scientists believe that this unique adaptation of polar bears may exceed up to a 95 percent efficiency rate in converting the sun’s diffuse light rays into reusable heat. The optical structure of polar bears’ white fur has been investigated under a light microscope and ultraviolet-laser-induced luminescence device to support the proposition.

As it turns out, polar bears’ symbolic white hair is transparent. It has a hollow core about one-third of the hair’s diameter. According to one study, this intriguing hollow hair acts quite similar to optical fibres used by telecommunication companies in signal transmissions. Like a tunnel, light passes from the tip of each hair shaft down to the bear’s skin, where the sun’s heat is absorbed to help maintain its body temperature.

This remarkable polar-solar mechanism has undergone preliminary tests in solar panels to evaluate its efficiency. Pelt-like fibres were placed between the solar panel’s photovoltaic collector and retainer plates, resulting in a dramatic 50 percent increase in solar energy collection efficiency. Such developmental progress could spur a significant change in solar energy production, making integrated solar power systems appealing for northern indigenous communities.

Final Thoughts

Solar power technologies may have existed for several years, but they are yet to be fully explored.

Polar bears emphasize the potential of improved solar power generation in polar regions. Scientists are developing polar-solar panels that capture the sun’s diffuse light and convert it to solar energy even in cold climatic conditions. This polar-solar phenomenon may also reduce the need for larger energy storage capacity, which conventional solar panels require during periods of overcast weather. Solar power technologies may have existed for several years, but they have not been fully explored. More studies are still needed to understand opportunities and challenges concerning polar bear-inspired solar power systems.

Illustration of a cleaner and healthier ecosystem with various renewable energy sources

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How do polar bears get energy from the sun?

Polar bears collect solar energy with their own fur. The light is transmitted to the bear’s skin via its tunnel-like hair. Studies suggest that polar bears’ pelt is about 95 percent efficient in converting sunlight into heat.

 

Why are polar bears white?

Polar bears are characterized by their white fur, which allows them to camouflage into their icy habitat. Interestingly, the polar bears’ coat is not white at all. It is transparent, which allows light to reflect toward its inner core. This reflection gives polar bears a bright white appearance.

 

How do polar bears survive on the sea ice?

During winter, temperatures can drop to -40 or -46 degrees Celsius in Arctic regions. Polar bears are built to adapt to such weather conditions, from their fur to skin, paws and claws. In fact, they have two layers of coat to help prevent heat loss. This means overheating during summer can be a bigger problem among polar bears than staying warm in the winter.

 

What is solar energy?

Solar energy comes from the sun’s light and heat harnessed by various technologies to generate electricity and provide light, water, and cooling and heating systems for domestic, commercial or industrial use. Solar energy is considered one of the cleanest and most abundant renewable energy sources globally.

 

How does a solar power system work?

There are two types of solar power systems. Namely, these are photovoltaic (PV) and concentrating solar-thermal power (CSP). Photovoltaic cells are used in solar panels to capture energy from the sunlight. This energy produces electrical charges that move in the PV cells to generate electricity flow. CSP systems utilize mirrors to reflect and focus sunlight onto collector plates, which is converted to heat. Heat energy is used to create or store electricity for later use. CSP systems are typically used in large-scale power plants.

 

How does polar bears’ phenomenal fur influence solar power enhancements?

Scientists are inspired by the impressive core structure of polar bears’ coats to create more efficient solar energy collectors that can stand the test of climate extremes. By considering the concept of altering solar radiation transmissions, further adaptations of polar-solar concepts might include improving solar technology performance, providing smart lighting to northern communities, and protecting polar bears from global warming.