Materials engineered from the atoms up could boost photovoltaic efficiencies from pathetic to profitable
Five gigawatts—a paltry 0.038 percent of the world's consumption of energy from all sources. That, roughly, is the cumulative capacity of all photovoltaic (PV) power systems installed in the world, half a century after solar cells were first commercialized. In the category of greatest unfulfilled potential, solar-electric power is a technology without rival.
Even if orbiting arrays [see "Space-Based Solar," on page 108] never get off the ground, nanotechnology now looks set to rescue solar from its perennial irrelevance, however. Engineers are working on a wide range of materials that outshine the bulk silicon used in most PV cells today, improving both their efficiency and their cost.
The most sophisticated (and expensive) second-generation silicon cells eke out about 22 percent efficiency. New materials laced with quantum dots might double that, if discoveries reported this past March pan out as hoped. The dots, each less than 10 billionths of a meter wide, were created by groups at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado and Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.
When sunlight hits a silicon cell, most of it ends up as heat. At best, a photon can knock loose one electron. Quantum dots can put a wider range of wavelengths to useful work and can kick out as many as seven electrons for every photon. Most of those electrons soon get stuck again, so engineers are testing better ways to funnel them into wires. They are also hunting for dot materials that are more environmentally friendly than the lead, selenium and cadmium in today's
Was this article helpful?
Do we really want the one thing that gives us its resources unconditionally to suffer even more than it is suffering now? Nature, is a part of our being from the earliest human days. We respect Nature and it gives us its bounty, but in the recent past greedy money hungry corporations have made us all so destructive, so wasteful.