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Inkjet-printable Solar Panels… Really!

Jane Poynter, Scientific Blogging
…researchers at the New Jersey Institute of Technology have come up with the kind of power source that is reminiscent of the Star Trek materializer – solar cells that spew out of an inkjet printer. It’s so simple, anyone can do it.

No more bulky, unsightly roof-top panels. No more taking out a second mortgage to do the right thing and be off the grid. Nope, you just slide in the flexible ‘paper’, hit the print button, and out pops a slender solar panel of the size and shape you designate – cheap and easy.

Instead of wrapping cars in advertisements to make money, let’s wrap ‘em to make energy. Roll up your “power pad” and take it camping. Slather your roof in power grids – and no one can accuse you of violating your home owners’ association regulations.

Oh, and did I mention the researchers think you’ll be able to paint this stuff on as well? Run into a disaster zone, slap some solar paint onto a flat surface that is looking at the sun, and voila! Instant power.

…They’ve discovered that mixing Buckyballs with carbon nanotubes – single wall carbon tubes 50,000 times thinner than a human hair – makes an electrical conductor better than any conventional wire. “Actually, nanotubes are significantly better conductors than copper,” said Professor Mitra, the brains behind the discovery.

“Right now we use a reaction in a microwave to combine the nanotubes with the fullerenes (Buckyballs), and then coat them on [a] plastic sheet. Although we are not printing them now, it is clearly the same kind of approach.”

Here’s how it works in very simplistic terms. Sunlight falls on the plastic sheet – which is not exactly any old plastic. It’s a fancy polymer made for solar applications. The sunlight excites the polymer so it produces electrons. The Buckyballs snatch up the electrons, hand them off to the nanotubes to transport them. The current then flows down wires connected to the solar cell and lights up your house.
(23 August 2007)

When it Comes to Solar – Lest We Forget

Neal Dikeman, Cleantech Blog
I saw a news article recently on the space walk to do repair and relocation on solar photovoltaic array on the International Space Station.

It reminded me to keep in perspective a bit of energy history. The US basically invented the solar industry to help power the space race. And the industry grew out of that to become a possible solution in the first energy crisis (though still way too early and way too expensive at the time). And we helped keep the industry alive post energy crisis with our off grid market and federal R&D funding.

Now that costs have fallen precipitously, and a wide range of major companies from Sharp and BP to Applied Materials and IBM are in the business to drive costs to the magical grid parity (Cleantech Blog has blogged about this numerous times), it is disappointing to see that the US leadership has fallen victim to stronger government support in newer national entrants like Japan and Germany (which combined have a solar market some 7x larger than ours) who major subsidy programs in place roughly 15 and 5 years ago respectively.

I think it is fair to say that we are not going to regain our leadership in the crystalline silicon end of the business, though perhaps we can make a dent. So perhaps we must look to the growth of thin film technology for our leadership. But there are bright spots on that front…

Neal Dikeman is a founding partner at Jane Capital Partners LLC, a boutique merchant bank advising strategic investors and startups in cleantech. He is founding contributor of Cleantech Blog, a Contributing Author for Inside Greentech, and a Contributing Editor to Alt Energy Stocks
(15 August 2007)

Summoning the will to tap our solar brilliance

Jeremy Leggett, Sydney Morning Herald
What are hot, good-looking, born in Australia and about to make a lot of people very rich in China? Answer: many of the solar cells in production today. The solar photovoltaics business is one of the fastest-growing global industries. Over the past two years many billions of investment dollars have flowed into it.

Why is this subject important? At root, because human society has to conduct a managed retreat from the use of coal to power economies. If we want our economies to remain intact, much less to prosper, we have to leave most of the black stuff in the ground, along with a good deal of oil and gas. To do that, we need to mobilise – as though for war – the family of clean energy sources of which solar is an important member. Since Australia is a major producer and exporter of coal and because Australia has some of the finest solar photovoltaics research teams in the world this is a conflation of topics that ought to be high on Australia’s list of national security concerns.

Why the need to turn our backs on coal? Climate scientists in government and universities run simulations of future climate that almost without exception show a sobering piece of arithmetic. If we are to avoid tipping the planet over the widely accepted danger threshold of 450 parts per million of atmospheric carbon dioxide, we can afford to burn fossil fuels only in a quantity measured in the low hundreds of billions of tonnes of carbon. Industry estimates suggest that using the remaining oil deposits alone would exceed this figure, if we include the unconventional sources such as tar sands. As for coal deposits, the energy industry suggests they are measured in thousands of billions of tonnes.

Even if we believe that fossil fuel proponents tend to exaggerate their estimates of the size of deposits, it is clear that the majority of remaining coal has to stay in the ground if we are to avoid climate catastrophe.

…The manufacturing costs of solar cells are coming down nearly 20 per cent every time the global industry doubles in capacity, and that is happening every two years. Solar photovoltaics manufacturing costs are cheaper today than retail electricity in some markets, and by 2010 will be cheaper than today’s electricity in most developed country markets. Meanwhile, of course, the price of polluting electricity is on the way up. As a result, when the installed price for solar electricity is cheaper than the retail electricity price in most places in the world a mass market for solar will emerge, and it will no longer be dependent on the kind of far-sighted governmental market enablement that is driving the fast growth of the industry today. People will be amazed at how rapidly solar and its sister low-carbon technologies can invade traditional energy markets at that point. Watch where the investment money is going today to see the speed with which people are twigging to this. The sister technologies to solar are taking off too, and they will include storage technologies and – via plug-in hybrids – transport technologies.

The future can be bright. However, the jury is very much out on whether we are collectively smart enough to fashion it so.

Jeremy Leggett is the chief executive of solarcentury, Britain’s largest solar solutions company. He is the author of Half Gone: Oil, Gas, Hot Air and the Global Energy Crisis. He is speaking at the University of Technology, Sydney this morning as part of the Ultimo Science Festival.
(23 August 2007)

Beyond batteries: Storing power in a sheet of paper

Michael Mullaney, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have developed a new energy storage device that easily could be mistaken for a simple sheet of black paper.

The nanoengineered battery is lightweight, ultra thin, completely flexible, and geared toward meeting the trickiest design and energy requirements of tomorrow’s gadgets, implantable medical equipment, and transportation vehicles.

Along with its ability to function in temperatures up to 300 degrees Fahrenheit and down to 100 below zero, the device is completely integrated and can be printed like paper. The device is also unique in that it can function as both a high-energy battery and a high-power supercapacitor, which are generally separate components in most electrical systems. Another key feature is the capability to use human blood or sweat to help power the battery.

Details of the project are outlined in the paper “Flexible Energy Storage Devices Based on Nanocomposite Paper” published Aug. 13 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The semblance to paper is no accident: more than 90 percent of the device is made up of cellulose, the same plant cells used in newsprint, loose leaf, lunch bags, and nearly every other type of paper.
(13 August 2007)