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Solar Nanotech
Jamais Cascio, 25 May 04

Advances in solar cell technology just keep coming (see previous stories here, here, and here, among others). According to Technology Research News, a group of Los Alamos National Laboratory researchers have figured out how to employ nanotechnological processes to improve solar cell energy production by up to 37 percent. By using lead selenium nanocrystals (measuring about 100 hydrogen atoms across), the LANL scientists could trigger a process called "impact ionization," which lets a photon move two electrons instead of one. Solar cells using lead selenium nanocrystals would have a potential conversion efficiency of 60 percent; most commercial solar cells max out at around 35 percent.

The LANL report, which is to appear in Physical Review Letters, suggests that cells using this technology could be practical in a couple of years. No word on cost or engineering difficulties yet, of course. I'm particularly curious as to whether this technique could be combined with the band-gap improvements developed by the UC/MIT/LLNL team last month.

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Comments

Unfortunately this still leaves photovoltaic solar power a marginal solution at best; the energy output is still tiny compared to, say, wind turbines, with a far more wasteful use of available space. I think this technology is more exciting in its potential other applications, such as increasing the effeciency of light detection/imaging/etc.

From a pure consumer standpoint, if the cost were low enough, the new cells would make a viable supplemental power source (once installed, the power is free, so why not throw a bank or two on your roof?), but the initial price remains to be seen, and even then they would not be able to supply all (or even a large fraction of) the power a typical home uses today.


Posted by: Howard on 25 May 04

The goal wouldn't be to have solar cells be the sole (or even the primary) source of grid power -- the goal is a robust and efficient mix of renewable energy sources, correctly balanced for regional generation (i.e., more solar in the south/southwest, more wind on the plains, etc.), ideally in a distributed generation network for reliability and flexibility.

Right now, solar panels are only cost-effective under certain conditions. Boosting the kwh/dollar efficiency will make them cost-effective under a broader set of conditions.


Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 25 May 04

Agreed. Also, I was a bit pessimistic in my first post; after doing the math, these panels will actually produce a respectable amount of power (about 100W per 0.5 m^2 panel, if I am doing the math right) and will supplement other renewable sources quite nicely.

Enough of them could conceivably power a home, with solar concentrators. Of course putting a few solar concentrators on your roof isn't a real good idea.


Posted by: Howard on 25 May 04

saw these on arstechnica awhile back :D cheers!

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2004-02/icos-shp020504.php

"The UK's Imperial College and Japan Science and Technology Corp. announced they have determined the photosynthetic reaction center at high resolution. Three manganese atoms, a calcium atom and four oxygen atoms form a cube-like structure that brings stability to the catalytic center. A fourth manganese atom attached to the oxygen atom is highly reactive and gives strong clues to how the catalytic water splitting occurs. If researchers can replicate the catalytic center, it could be used as a basis of providing a source of hydrogen on a large scale. Nature had a several-million-year headstart on the scientists, but hopefully with current tech, it won't take scientists as long to unlock the secrets of water splitting."

http://physicsweb.org/article/news/8/2/2

"If and/or when scientists are able to use this knowledge to provide hydrogen on a large-scale basis, they may have a new molecule to use for hydrogen storage and transportation. Researchers at the University of Michigan and Arizona State University have created a new molecule which has the largest internal surface area ever observed. The molecule was relatively simple to make and in absorption tests, the teams were able to absorb nearly 1290 mg of nitrogen per gram of material. The teams will be testing the material for absorption of other gases such as hydrogen. If absorption of hydrogen is high enough, the new material may be quite useful for storage to be used in hydrogen-fueled cars and other fuel cell powered machines."


Posted by: reflexorset on 25 May 04

Believe it or not, my undergrad research advisor was working on that very problem. Cool that someone is cracking it.


Posted by: Howard on 25 May 04



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