New routes to solar energy: the UK announces more research cash

The agency primarily responsible for distributing government research money for nanotechnology in the UK, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, announced a pair of linked programmes today which substantially increase the funding available for research into new, nano-enabled routes for harnessing solar energy. The first of the Nanotechnology Grand Challenges, which form part of the EPSRC’s new nanotechnology strategy, is looking for large-scale, integrated projects exploiting nanotechnology to enable cheap, efficient and scalable ways to harvest solar energy, with an emphasis on new solar cell technology. The other call, Chemical and Biochemical Solar Energy Conversion, is focussed on biological fuel production, photochemical fuel production and the underpinning fundamental science that enables these processes. Between the two calls, around £8 million (~ US $16 million) is on offer in the first stage, with more promised for continuations of the most successful projects.

I wrote a month ago about the various ways in which nanotechnology might make solar energy, which has the potential to supply all the energy needs of the modern industrial world, more economically and practically viable. The oldest of these technologies – the dye sensitised nano-titania cell invented by EPFL’s Michael Grätzel – is now moving towards full production, with the company G24 Innovations having opened a factory in Wales, in partnership with Konarka. Other technologies such as polymer and hybrid solar cells need more work to become commercial.

Using solar energy to create, not electricity, but fuel, for example for transportation, is a related area of great promise. Some work is already going on developing analogues to photosynthetic systems for using light to split water into hydrogen. A truly grand challenge here would be to devise a system for photochemically reducing carbon dioxide. Think of a system in which one took carbon dioxide (perhaps from the atmosphere) and combined it with water with the aid of a couple of photons of light to make, say, methanol, which could directly be used in your internal combustion engine powered car. It’s possible in principle, one just has to find the right catalyst….

7 thoughts on “New routes to solar energy: the UK announces more research cash”

  1. I walked aboard the barge this afternoon to an interesting sight on our ‘Big Board’ [18X32 Feet fed by an ‘Old School Eidofor Projector]. One of our more creative hackers had superimposed a map of Nootka Sound, reversed and super imposed over the Moray Firth near Inverness with a mooring for Camp One strategically placed.
    Below it was a rough calculation of the costs involved in relocating Camp One to the UK because as I was told, ‘The EPSRC is doing so much better over there.’

    Taking it in stride, without pointing out the failure to calculate the TOTAL cost of such a move, I told the assembled crew to phone the Tugs.

    The initiatives announced reflect again on this research work being seen as a necessity within the funding structure in the UK, a point not lost on people who have read what I have to say in other venues as well as this one. I hope for a time when the initiatives begun by the EPSRC will translate into an ethos which will become prevalent throughout the developing Nanotechnology field. For ourselves, we continue along in our own minor way, advancing our capabilities as funding permits, but moreover, talking about the coming age.

    I recently leveled criticism about some blog posts being too much in the ‘All about me’ vein, I guess I can be legitimately slammed for this one being ‘All about us’.

    Kind Regards and Thank You again, Richard, for your continued deft hand on the spotlight.

  2. Any idea what is still holding back polymer cells? Is it conversion efficiency hitting roadblocks? Or perhaps wear rates? I know over the long-term Indium and Gallium supplies might dry up, but I’d assumed roll-to-roll cells were ready to roll commercially within the next two years.

  3. Not to pour rain on your guys’ parade, but isn’t the potential impact of nanotechnology a little overhyped by its boosters?

    Consider that 5% of the GDP in the U.S. and E.U. is manufacturing capital cost. Even if we get Eric Drexler’s “molecular manufacturing”, the impact of this would be to reduce the capital cost of manufacturing from this 5% down to near 0. This means that the most extreme vision of nanotech yields a 5% one-shot productivity boost in the economies of the developed countries. Now we know that the developing world, especially China, have a far greater percentage of their GDPs in capital manufacturing costs, say around 15-20%. This is for the most extreme version of nanotech (Drexlerian assembler nanotech).

    If Drexler’s version of nanotech is not possible (which I think is likely), then the most plausible scenario of nanotech development is some kind of “wet” nanotech, probably synthetic biology. In this case, the economic impact will be even less than that above.

    True, many industries will be transformed. Growing houses from synthetic biological seeds will radically transform the building industry. Then again, it might not. Seed-based nanotech grown houses strike me as symply being the next technology version of manufactured houses, and most housing is still stick-built.

    If my above reasoning is correct, it is likely that the socio-economic impact of full-blown nanotech will be no greater than that of IT/internet in the late 90’s. A brief bubble, followed by a new norm.

    The impact in the developing world will be somewhat more significant.

    Feel free to correct me if you think I’m wrong here.

  4. Phillip, I think the issues holding back polymer cells at the moment are efficiencies (though these are steadily climbing), perhaps more so lifetime and the related issue of the processing difficulties of encapsulating the cells to protect them sufficiently from oxygen and water vapour, and the chemistry of getting the right materials in sufficient purity at an economic cost.

  5. I love solar power I think over the next few years it’s going to be exploding even more… as performance of solar panels goes up people are going to be adopting it everywhere they can… after all it’s free energy 🙂

    Some things I’m looking forward to are more effiecient solar panels, about 5 years from now when I buy my house I want to make sure I can power the entire house and my plugin hybrid all on solar power… I’m also hoping that solar paint will finally be in customers hands… having your entire house generate so much electricity and maybe even being able to sell it back to the grid would be amazing…

    BTW here is more great Solar Power information, there is quite a few amazing new solar projects being done right now… it’s really great to see so much focus on alternative energy.

  6. I would really love to have solar on my house but where we are it just isn’t suitable. I really feel that everyone who does have a home where there is plenty of light should use solar. I see the future as all home owners having their very own “power stations” on their house. Not to metion stuff like geothermal.

  7. It’s worth noting that the present efficiency of polymer solar cells lies near five percent, which is far below the value for silicon cells. Polymer solar cells also suffer from environmental degradation. Good protective coatings are yet to be developed.

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