As solar energy gains acceptance and financial feasibility, start-up companies across the country are aiming to develop and market the most efficient solar products to consumers. The focus is not entirely on large solar power plants anymore. Thin film technology is gaining a foothold.
One particular area of growing interest involves plastic thin-film solar patches. Asher Price writes at Statesman.com about efforts at the University of Texas. A group led by University of Texas chemical engineering professor Brian Korgel has created an inklike concoction of light-absorbing material that can be spray-painted on a combination of plastic and metal to make more or less instant solar panels thinner than a sheet of paper.
"The group's dream: to mass produce the solar patches on huge printing presses like those used by newspapers. The thin-film technology could reduce the cost of putting a solar array on a roof from more than $20,000 to less than $2,000. In the near future people may become walking power plants, harnessing the sun to power their lives."
Fortune Magazine's Barney Gimbel writes about one start-up efforts to produce thin-film. Rick Hess, who runs solar upstart Konarka, is showing off Power Plastic, a new lightweight, flexible, and cheap material that converts indoor and outdoor light into electricity. Think of it as a solar panel that rolls up like camera film.
" 'Soon you may not even need batteries. We can put this stuff anywhere.'
"In a few years Konarka will have perfected a translucent version of its product that could be built into the windows of skyscrapers, generating enough power to run whole buildings. It is also working on projects for the Department of Defense to make solar-power tents that recharge soldiers' equipment in remote locations. Eventually the technology could even be woven into clothing - imagine slipping your cell phone into your pocket to recharge it.
"The newest thinking behind solar production and use focuses on cost-effective ways to generate electricity. By adding panels and other solar products to existing structures space is saved along with problems with electricity transportation. They even have designer clothes made entirely of solar panels. Don't know how comfortable the clothing is though."
The New York Times' Henry Fountain writes about research being conducted in Illinois.
"The researcher, John A. Rogers, a professor of materials science and engineering at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and his team use a standard printing technique to create solar cells that are a tenth the thickness of conventional semiconductor cells, or even thinner. The cells are so flexible that dense arrays of them can be rolled tightly around a pencil. The technology has been licensed to Semprius, a semiconductor company in Durham, N.C., that expects to begin a pilot project making solar modules in about a year."
Dr. Rogers talks about his excitement for thin-film technology.
" 'That the technology is rollable and transparent is important, but cost is the paramount consideration for a lot of solar applications, which have to be low-cost per watt generated. The technology is producing cells that are often only two microns thick (a micron is one-millionth of a meter). Thinner allows cheaper.' "
Currently energy output is lower than traditional silicon based panels, but the gap in efficiency is closing quickly as Michael Graham Richard from Treehugger.com writes.
"The US National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) has created thin film solar panels that are very close to competing with their more traditional silicon-based cousins. The copper indium gallium diselenide (CIGS) thin-film solar cell recently reached 19.9 percent efficiency in testing at the lab, setting a new world record. The figure 19.9 percent refers to how much of the sun's light is converted to electricity by the panel."
At a time when silicon panels maybe reaching their maximum potential, a product with the flexibility and mobility, with room to improve, is very exciting.