Nanotechnology for solar cells

This month’s issue of Physics World has an useful article giving an overview of the possible applications of nanotechnology to solar cells, under the strapline “Nanotechnology could transform solar cells from niche products to devices that provide a significant fraction of the world’s energy”.

The article discusses both the high road to nano-solar, using the sophistication of semiconductor nanotechnology to make highly efficient (but expensive) solar cells, and the low road, which uses dye-sensitised nanoparticles or semiconducting polymers to make relatively inefficient, but potentially very cheap, materials. One thing the article doesn’t talk about much are the issues of production and scaling, which are currently the main barriers in the way of these materials fully meeting their potential. We will undoubtedly hear much more about this over the coming months and years.

5 thoughts on “Nanotechnology for solar cells”

  1. Hi Richard,

    What do you make of claims like this for an American Company called NanoSolar?

    you haven’t caught the name before, Nanosolar is a company that is trying to apply printing technologies to photovoltaic cell manufacture. Rather than the energy-intensive and costly manufacture silicon cells currently undergo, Nanosolar essentially hopes to run solar power off by the foot. (They’ve already demonstrated the process – you can watch a video at their website.) The cost savings promise to be revolutionary – $0.50 per installed peak watt of power, compared to $10 for current PV cells, or $1 for coal plants. You read that right – Nanosolar will be able to under-sell coal.

    Hope it’s true!

  2. Hi,

    A quick response. Nanosolar uses a mixture not based on silicon, which is why it is flavour of the month. It uses the secnod-generation method described in the Physics World article. Silicon is expensive and hard to get in big enough quantities. As you have seen, their photovoltaics are printed onto the substrate, which allows large area coverage. I think that they then need to heat it to allow the nanoparticles to self-assemble. I am not sure that they have sorted the defect problem inherent in these devices, so I think they might be optimistic as to their eventual cost.

    Nanosolar enjoyed much coverage because their printing method allowed them to raise a lot of money ($100M, more than any of the competitors) and also because two of their investors were Sergey Brin and Larry Page, both founders of Google. Google were clearly not so impressed as they went with silicon solar cell technology for its own installation.

    Richard is right though. the engineering challenges of these things really deserve more attention, which is why Nanosolar’s approach is worthy of comment.

    Best wishes


  3. Zelah, I’m sure that someone will crack the challenge of making printable solar cells, whether it is Nanosolar or Konarka or someone else, and that when this happens it will transform the economics of solar power. Tim Harper has some words of caution:“The companies using nanotechnology to produce thin film solar systems have burned through a quarter of a billion dollars of venture capital money over six years, and still haven’t cracked the manufacturing and reliability issues which will make the technology economic. “ Which brings us back to the engineering challenges. I hope they can be solved, and I certainly think its worth spending some money to try.

  4. Dear Sir

    Thought I might run this past you, maybe get an opinion.

    I would like to see solar soft cover for mobile phones, or any portable media device, like neoprene, but imbued with solar cells, with the appropriate jack plug to trickle charge the unit.

    Alternatively, the product or media device, has in itself, made in production, a skin that is one big solar cell, hard or soft.

    This will not eliminate the need for charging a device as per normal but may give a device a standby or low function mode, or gradually top up existing charge, and with long periods unused in a lit environment the unit may fully charge.

    It would eliminate a percentage of energy used in standard charging of anything from Sony PSP, Nintendo DS, generic laptops, mobile phones, to maybe even the appliances in your own home with a solar charged battery kicking in on standby modes.

    In the local environment, why can’t long poles and streetlights on the road side/pavement be the larger equivilent of the solar lights we buy as custom in the diy chains? It would save thousands of pounds, and redirect some enterprising scheme/idea a lot of revenue.

    These concepts must be possible why hasn’t this problem been cracked yet, as we use most things electrical, a small gain through solar charging will save a percentage of costs in the general use of electricity, add that up over one year I am sure that would cover the development cost.

    It is a future, as a consumer of electicity, I would like to see.

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