Some time ago I read about the Sun being able to generate in one hour so much power that the entire planet would need in a whole year. Why didn’t anybody think of using this power before, at a large scale? Well, first of all, the reason is the cost of the photovoltaic solar cell and its efficiency. Even though companies compete with new discoveries of technologies that improve the efficiency it’s still not enough.
Chemists from the Idaho National Laboratory and Idaho State University may have found the gold mine of solar energy efficiency. They invented the manufacturing technology of a highly precise and uniform nanoparticle that improves solar cells and further spurs the growing nanotech revolution. Being so small, most of the interactions happen on their surface rather than in their interior allowing them to have very different characteristics than larger parts of the same material. Even though the exploitation of nanoparticles is at its starting point it shows promising abilities in different fields: engineering, medicine or energy: “Nanoparticles are the scientific gold rush of the next generation. They’ll change our lives the way personal computers have” said INL chemist Bob Fox who is part of the development team of the Precision Nanoparticles technology.
Fox and ISU chemists Joshua Pak and Rene Rodriguez have started a few years ago to search for a way to make semiconducting components for solar cells. They needed to improve the process of transforming raw materials into semiconducting nanoparticles. The team tried to use “supercritical” carbon dioxide to streamline the reaction. Supercritical fluids are almost like a mix between a gas and a liquid. Their major ability is to diffuse through solids and to dissolve substances like a liquid does. The result of the experiment was a yellow goop which the team thought to be a failed experiment but after a closer look, they saw that they realized something incredible. The resulted matter was filled with very tiny uniform semiconducting nanoparticles.
This reaction generated a better and less volatile product than the actual industry would have made. The production process is environmentally friendly, generating little waste and saving a lot of energy, hence also costs, as the interaction temperature is with 65 degrees Celsius less than the actual industry reaction (300 degrees Celsius). The control of the nanoparticle size was just a matter of time as now the team can produce them in sizes between 1 to 100 nanometers. The technology was just recently licensed to Precision Nanoparticles Inc. which has been founded by: Fox, Pak and Rodriguez.
The development of a photovoltaic cell which can harness more of the solar spectrum is not such an easy job as this has to put low-energy photons to work and use high-energy photons more efficiently. With the help of the precise nanoparticle structures, the manufacturing of a semiconductor building block from a single material that will be able to work with a specific wavelength of light is just a matter of time. A photovoltaic cell made of such building blocks will be able to capture a very large area of the solar energy spectrum. And besides all of this the solar cells will be cheaper, as they would contain only one semiconducting material, more efficient and easier to build than the current multi-layer designs.
Some cells would be able to collect infrared wavelengths, heat, which radiates even at night: ground, cement, roads, stone, almost everywhere in the world: “So your solar panel could be working long after you’ve gone to bed” said Fox.
Beyond solar power, the new founded technology could also be used for ultracapacitor research. Ultracapacitors store energy quickly and effectively and they could replace in the future batteries from electric cars and plug-in hybrids.
The nanoparticles could be used in different industry areas “the only thing limiting us at this point is our imagination” said Fox. This breakthrough may totally change our lives and way of living. We could finally start mass production of electric vehicles as we would have more than enough energy to plug as many as we want.