Dubai: Marjan van Aubel takes her role as a designer seriously – tasked with building the future, she believes solar panels should not only generate energy but catch the eye too. In a unique integration of sustainability, technology and design, the award-winning Dutch solar designer adorns the Netherlands Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai with 60 organic polyethylene terephthalate (PET) solar panels.
“Sustainability is a core element. You have to rethink about what kind of material you are using and what impact it will have 10, 20, even 100 years from now,” says van Aubel, in an interview with Gulf News. The colourful panels seamlessly blend into the biotope theme of the pavilion under the banner of ‘Uniting water, energy and food’.
Sustainability is a core element. You have to rethink about what kind of material you are using and what impact it will have in 10, 20, even 100 years from now.
Van Aubel’s vibrant cells are a splash of colour against the backdrop of metallic photovoltaic panels so ubiquitous in our eco-conscious era – except, they are far more than just pretty.
Van Aubel’s solar beginnings
Ever since 2012, the deceptively simple yet complex science of gathering sunlight onto a surface, then storing it in a reservoir for drawing up at a later stage, has been a source of endless fascination for the thirty-six-year-old designer.
During her postgraduate studies at the Royal College of Arts in London, van Aubel found inspiration in the out-of-the-box innovations of Swiss professor Michael Grätzel, who pioneered the dye-sensitised solar cell (DSSC) that taps into the properties of colour to convert sunlight into electricity.
“Why do solar panels look the way they do when there are so many opportunities?”
Van Aubel’s creative solar ideas have been manifesting in everyday household objects for the past nine years. In 2012, the designer used Grätzel’s dye solar cells technology to build ‘The Energy Collection’, a battery cabinet powered by yellow, red and orange solar glasses that won her the DOEN Material Prize at Dutch Design Week.
The designer is also the co-creator of ‘Cyanometer’, a sun-harvesting light installation for the renowned jewellery and glass brand Swarovski, who awarded her the Designer of the Future Award in 2017.
Stained glass panels for Netherlands Pavilion
“In the Netherlands, you have a lot of greenhouses [that] are made of solar glass,” says van Aubel. “The inside of the greenhouse is powered by the outside – a concept that fits very well with V8 Architects [the architectural firm designing the pavilion] who are combining water, energy and food in the Netherlands Pavilion.”
The solar panels of the pavilion are mostly in charge of powering up a 19-metre-tall food cone and its ‘Rainmaker’, a technology co-developed by SunGlacier Technologies and Dutch artist Ap Verheggen. With the help of a wind-suction chimney, the invention can extract 800 litres of water daily from the desert air.
While the panels work their magic to irrigate the plants on the exterior of the cone, they also double as transparent skylights through which stained sunlight steeps the pavilion in varied shades. French industrial firm ARMOR's ASCA® OPV or organic solar films, which measure 22 metres in length and 1.2 metres in width, are layered on to six rows of glass in the ceiling.
“[The engineers] printed a very thin layer of photovoltaic ink on the PET film,” says van Aubel, who adds that the printed cells are a third-generation solar technology. Having undergone rigorous testing, the lightweight, sustainable material is capable of withstanding temperatures of more than 100 degrees Celsius.
There is beauty in sustainability
An interlaced pattern creating the Moiré effect is embossed on the panels’ pliable film. As the sun filters through the geometrical design, visitors will find three-dimensional kaleidoscopic shadows dancing on their clothing and skin. For van Aubel, beautifying solar technology is the key to bringing it closer to the masses.
“I think beauty is very powerful. If you were to see solar technology as just technology then the energy transition would go too slow. We should be looking up in the sky, there is so much potential.”
Every surface under the sun can be an activator for harvesting energy, and if made appealing to the eyes, van Aubel believes that the resulting emotional connection can put solar technology everywhere – from glass panes to buildings all around us.
I think beauty is very powerful. If you were to see solar technology as just technology then the energy transition would go too slow. We should be looking up in the sky, there is so much potential.
Her choice of colour palette for the photovoltaic panels goes deeper than just aesthetics, however. In the Netherlands Pavilion, sprouting from the exterior of the food cone are edible greens of basil and cress that will absorb light wavelengths left over from the energy conversion.
As an artist operating within the nexus of sustainability, technology and design, van Aubel deliberately opted for hues of blue, red and orange, given that plants mostly absorb photons in the blue and red regions of the visible light spectrum.
Expo 2020 Dubai: A milestone for Marjan van Aubel
The solar designer holds the Expo project close to her heart; having previously worked on domestic objects and windows, the pavilion marks her first venture into the world of architecture.
“This is 175 square metres of solar panels,” says van Aubel. “I’ve never worked [on such a large scale], so for me that is super cool – and, it is in Dubai. Being part of the World Expo is one of my biggest achievements, a milestone I would say.”
Being part of the World Expo is one of my biggest achievements, a milestone I would say.
After the world fair closes its doors on March 31, 2022, the panels will gain a second life elsewhere in line with the pavilion’s circularity commitment. Though, the designer hopes it finds a home in the sunshine-rich city of Dubai, recounting her recent visit to Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park, the largest single-site solar park in the world.
And, when asked what the future holds for the award-winning solar designer, van Aubel says that she has not tired of solar power just yet: “Well, I’m not done; there is still a lot of work to do.”
- The writer is an intern with Gulf News.