Via FuturePundit1 we learn that researchers at Idaho National Laboratory, along with partners at Microcontinuum Inc. (Cambridge, MA) and Patrick Pinhero of the University of Missouri, are developing2 a novel way to collect energy from the sun with a technology that could potentially cost pennies a yard, be imprinted on flexible materials and still draw energy after the sun has set.
The new approach, which garnered two 2007 Nano50 awards, uses a special manufacturing process to stamp tiny square spirals of conducting metal onto a sheet of plastic. Each interlocking spiral “nanoantenna” is as wide as 1/25 the diameter of a human hair.
Because of their size, the nanoantennas absorb energy in the infrared part of the spectrum, just outside the range of what is visible to the eye. The sun radiates a lot of infrared energy, some of which is soaked up by the earth and later released as radiation for hours after sunset. Nanoantennas can take in energy from both sunlight and the earth’s heat, with higher efficiency than conventional solar cells.
“I think these antennas really have the potential to replace traditional solar panels,” says physicist Steven Novack, who spoke about the technology in November at the National Nano Engineering Conference in Boston.
Plastic is orders of magnitude cheaper than the polysilicon crystal used in the expensive photovoltaics of today.
They think they can achieve a very high efficiency of energy conversion.
Commercial solar panels usually transform less that 20 percent of the usable energy that strikes them into electricity. Each cell is made of silicon and doped with exotic elements to boost its efficiency. “The supply of processed silicon is lagging, and they only get more expensive,” Novack says. He hopes solar nanoantennas will be a more efficient and sustainable alternative.
The team estimates individual nanoantennas can absorb close to 80 percent of the available energy.
An order of magnitude drop in the cost of photovoltaics would make energy storage our biggest problem. The sun does not always shine. But when it does cheap photovoltaics would make photovoltaic electricity the cheapest source of power.
Super cheap solar electric would make more industries seasonal. For example, put the cost of electricity below 1 cent per kilowatt-hour in Arizona from the first day of spring through summer and it might make sense to do a full year’s Aluminum smelting in 6 months in Arizona. Or maybe do all the smelting in 4 months.
Nitrogen fertilizer production could become seasonal as well. Use cheap electric power to fix hydrogen to nitrogen during the spring before crops get planted. Keep making fertilizer during the summer for use the next year. Other chemical feedstock synthesis could similarly be done when the power is very cheap.
Is there a conductive polymer canopy in your future? Concentrating Photovoltaics Competitive Solar Cells at 25% of Typical Cost And, Silicon Valley Solar Scores Metamorphic Materials Pioneer, Ho
1Nanoantenna Photovoltaic Cells Developed 2How about incredibly cheap photovoltaics with high conversion efficiency?
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