July 13th, 2007


Major scientific breakthrough: cheap, renewable solar power!

Today, it was announced in the journal "Science" that a team of researchers from the University of California Santa Barbara and from South Korea's Gwangju Institute of Science and Technology have created a highly efficient plastic solar cell that functions approximately as well as solar cells made from silicon. The Western press hasn't clued in to this much yet, but you can read an article about it here and  here.

So, what's revolutionary about solar cells that work as well as other existing solar cells? The cost of producing them, and how they can be used.

Traditional silicon solar cells cost about $2.30 per watt, which is three to 10 times higher than the production cost of thermal or hydro power. For years, the unreached "holy grail" in solar cell generation has been achieving cells that cost $1 per watt, as that price point would allow for solar power to become cost-competitive with more mainstream forms of electrical generation.

Well, these new plastic cells cost 10 cents a watt... 1/23rd the cost of silicon solar cells. Clean, renewable, and apparently competitive with oil and coal. And, being plastic, it is entirely likely that they can be mass-produced far more effectively and in larger quantity.

If that isn't revolutionary enough, this press release indicates that the cells "… can be fabricated to extend over large areas by means of low-cost printing and coating technologies that can simultaneously pattern the active materials on lightweight flexible substrates." Solar roofing tiles? Solar building tiles? Rollable "stick-on" solar? Sure... why not?!
The lead U.S. researcher in charge of this work is Prof. Alan Heeger, a man who has already won a Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work in discovering conducting polymers.

As his current work is described on his curriculum vitae:

Professor Heeger and his colleagues at the University of California at Santa Barbara have done pioneering research in the area of highly conductive polymer solids . . . Their current mission is to utilize the discovery (in the early 1990s) of ultrafast photoinduced electron transfer from semiconducting polymers to fullerenes to create a new generation of low cost solar cells. This technology is now under active development toward commercialization. They are optimistic that the public will see large-scale implementation of solar energy using the polymer solar cells within the next five years. When this happens, it will have the potential for serious impact on the energy needs of our planet.

Soon, his conducting polymers will be supplying us with cheap, renewable electricity... and, I suspect, Professor Heeger will have another Nobel Prize for the mantelpiece.