Sunday, November 25, 2007

Nanotechnology Meets Solar

The energy world is abuzz with news of an advance that combines nanotechnology (an applied science that controls matter at the levels of molecules and atoms) with the vast potential of solar power. Nanosolar, which is building the world's largest solar cell factory in San Jose, California, also has a 507,000 square foot manufacturing plant close to Berlin, Germany.

One of the factors that has dampened enthusiasm for solar power has been the cost differential between solar and traditional technologies for generating electricity. Nanosolar has devised a technique for roll-printing thin-film solar cells, making it possible to inexpensively produce roof tiles, window coverings, and other surface covering materials that harvest energy from the sun.

Quoting from an article recently posted on CNBC:

"Solar panels have not been very popular to the American people because they've been too expensive. That's what we're changing now," says Martin Roscheisen, another of the company's co-founders.

Nanosolar's secret sauce is just that: a patented glop of metals and nanoparticles that work together once they're exposed to sunlight, absorbing light and then producing energy. The substance is then sprayed on a durable foil by machines that look like giant newspaper printing presses. The process dramatically speeds up the manufacturing process.

"We're trying to achieve fantastic scale," says an early Nanosolar investor, Eric Straser from Mohr Davidow Ventures. "But we're really doing it in a way that achieves a cost breakthrough at the same time."

The transformational possibilities of technologies such as this demonstrate where this country's research and investment dollars should be going, obviating the need to turn to moribund technologies such as nuclear power and liquid coal.