Nanotechnology Making Sun Power Affordable
By James Donahue
The rush to buy and utilize silicon chips to build costly solar panels that capture solar
energy may be over almost before it began. A rising new star from California's Silicon Valley called Nanosolar has just emerged
with a new technology called PowerSheet solar cells.
Backed by a $20 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy and Google's founders,
Nanosolar is now beginning to produce its new product that cuts the cost of purchasing and installing solar panels on homes,
office buildings for heating and producing electric power.
What is Nanosolar's secret? The company is using discoveries in nanotechnology to produce
cells that capture the energy of the sun that are so small, they can be applied in a wafer-thin coating, just like paint.
You can slap it on roof shingles, on window frames and exterior walls. As a writer for Popular Science Magazine put it, the
stuff "seems to suck power from the air." It converts light into energy and makes the concept of solar power so inexpensive
and easy to consider, that anybody can have it.
The material isn't really applied with a paint brush, but rather, via a machine that behaves
like a printing press. The PowerSheet solar cells are set on a layer of solar-absorbing nano-ink onto metal sheets that are
as thin as aluminum foil, thus keeping the cost of production low.
The older system of manufacturing solar cells with silicon required laying the cells on
glass, making the panels heavy, dangerous, and expensive to not only ship but to install because the panels had to be especially
mounted. Up to 70 percent of the silicon gets wasted in the manufacturing process.
The Nanosolar cells do not contain silicon but the company claims its cells are as efficient
as most commercial silicon cells and at a cost as low as 30 cents a watt, compared to an estimated $3 a watt from conventional
Company CEO Martin Roscheisen says that once full production begins early in 2008, the
company expects to produce 430 megawatts' worth of solar cells a year, more than the combined total of every other solar plant
in the U.S. But competition to purchase these cells will be steep. The first 100,000 cells are already committed to a European
consortium that is building a 1.4-megawatt power plant.
Thus the biggest problem for Nanosolar is if it can produce enough solar cells to meet
the public demand.
Peter Harrop, chairman of IDTechEx, an electronic consulting firm involved in Nanosolar,
said the company is already "putting down factories" to meet an expected rush for orders.