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Power Science

Quantum Dot Recipe May Lead To Cheaper Solar Panels 205

Science Daily is reporting that scientists have developed a new method for cost-effectively producing four-armed quantum dots that have previously been shown to be particularly effective at converting sunlight into electrical energy. The discovery could clear the way for better, cheaper solar energy panels.
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Quantum Dot Recipe May Lead To Cheaper Solar Panels

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  • Oil Companies (Score:5, Insightful)

    by biocute ( 936687 ) on Wednesday May 02, 2007 @04:46PM (#18963807) Homepage
    I notice oil companies are heavily involved in solar energy, are they securing their future and/or slowing solar tech down?

    I would hate to reincarnate into a world where BP is still selling me (solar) energy as costly as what it is today.

    Can individuals adequately produce energy themselves in the future, or will big-corps still be the real suppliers?
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by wllmsaccnt ( 1096595 )
      I would hate to think that they are only securing the technology to abuse the patents. It may end up being a similar scenario to the Vonage/Verizon VOIP patent lawsuit. If a company can make groundbreaking breakthrough in competing markets, they can effectifly shut down growth from that competittion, or at least stiffle it through the threat and presence of lawsuits.
    • Re:Oil Companies (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Rycross ( 836649 ) on Wednesday May 02, 2007 @04:55PM (#18963947)
      I remember hearing here on slashdot that a lot of the energy companies actually recognize the fact of global warming. That, combined with the dual threat of peak oil, and they probably see the writing on the wall. To that effect, they're probably looking for ways to maintain their bottom line. Corporations are many things, but they aren't evil just for the heck of it. They're in it for profit.
      • by amRadioHed ( 463061 ) on Wednesday May 02, 2007 @05:36PM (#18964481)

        Corporations are many things, but they aren't evil just for the heck of it. They're in it for profit.
        I'm confused. Are you trying to say corporations are evil, but it's ok since it helps them make money?
        • Re:Oil Companies (Score:5, Insightful)

          by Jeremi ( 14640 ) on Wednesday May 02, 2007 @05:41PM (#18964549) Homepage
          I'm confused. Are you trying to say corporations are evil, but it's ok since it helps them make money?


          He's saying they aren't immoral so much as amoral. They don't sit around twirling their mustaches thinking of new ways to ruin the planet; rather, they sit around twirling their mustaches thinking up new ways to make money.

          • So doing whatever benefits them regardless of the consequences to anyone or anything else. How is that behavior distinguishable from "evil"?
            • Re:Oil Companies (Score:4, Insightful)

              by Rycross ( 836649 ) on Wednesday May 02, 2007 @06:30PM (#18965097)
              You're getting off track. We're not discussing whether or not their actions are evil. We're discussing whether they're investing in solar to bury it or in order to bring it to a viable means of energy production. My point is that the board room members aren't villains from "Captain Planet." They don't sit around going "MWA HA HA HA! Lets kill off solar! Its good for the planet, thus doing so would be EVIL! And we're EVIL! MWA HA HA!" If they're attempting to kill off solar, it would be done so in order to make profit, since thats their goal.

              I then go on further to say that global warming, peak oil, and other various problems with oil as an energy source are starting to gain a lot of focus by the populace at large. I theorize that the oil company executives see where the tides are turning, and are investing in solar to maintain their profits when the tides finally turn. I don't see them sinking R and D money into solar just to ignore a possible revenue stream, especially since investing that money in politicians could just as easily solve the whole "solar problem."

              Of course, other posters pointed out that they may have a short-term view, which may be the case. Its all speculation, unless you know someone very high in the decision making process at one of these companies.

              At any rate, I'm certainly not suggesting that the oil companies are gee-golly our best friends, nor am I suggesting that doing evil to make money is a-ok.

              Reading comprehension FTW.
              • I get your point, but where can we find large quantities of powdered unicorn tusk?
              • Re:Oil Companies (Score:5, Interesting)

                by autophile ( 640621 ) on Wednesday May 02, 2007 @09:45PM (#18967075)

                It's like some kind of demented Turing test. You have two terminals. One is connected to an evil guy twirling his moustache. The other is connected to a profit-seeking corporate board. But you don't know which terminal is connected to whom! Can you tell, just by examining their actions, which is the evil moustache, and which is the corporate board?

                Kthxbai,

                --Rob

            • My Dear Wormwood,

              It is a very simple thing to get people to do evil. Simply set up a system where no one person is really responsible but rather all effort is bent towards the common goal. Your idea of a coporation to make money will do just as well as any other. You can easily convince them that their duty to their shareholders is much more important than their duty to their employees, customers of the poeple of their town or city and thus induce them to perfrom the most unspeakable acts. Poisoning
        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by pclminion ( 145572 )

          I'm confused. Are you trying to say corporations are evil, but it's ok since it helps them make money?

          The OP is saying that their evil has a motive, as opposed to "pure evil" so to speak. The topic of this thread is not the motivation of the oil companies (that is not in dispute), but rather whether their motives will cause them to seek non-petroleum energy sources in the future. The short answer is "Yes, it will." The motive is profit, the behavior is (subjectively) evil, and petroleum has nothing to d

        • by JDevers ( 83155 )
          I don't remember 'corporate lawful evil' as a choice in AD&D...
    • I'll be happy if I can buy solar energy tomorrow as cheaply as I can fossil-fuel energy today. Fossil fuel is still pretty cheap, even with the OPEC cartel.
      • Re:Oil Companies (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Jeremi ( 14640 ) on Wednesday May 02, 2007 @05:43PM (#18964577) Homepage
        Fossil fuel is still pretty cheap, even with the OPEC cartel.


        Don't forget to factor in the externalized costs (air pollution, global warming, terrorism, your children getting sent to Iraq, etc). The price you pay at the pump isn't the only price there is to be paid.

        • by Rei ( 128717 )
          Oh, yeah, you say that now, but just you wait 'till OSEC (Organization of Silicon Exporting Countries) threatens to embargo the US... ;)
        • Of course I was referring to the dollar cost - it is obviously beneficial to get your energy from a place that is not volatile. I should point out that most fossil-fuel electricity in the US comes from coal - a domestic resource - so your list would really be shortened to air pollution and global warming... solar energy won't get cars off of the road.

          Air pollution can be mitigated in a coal plant, but it is hard to get rid of CO2 emissions!
        • Don't forget to factor in the externalized costs (air pollution, global warming, terrorism, your children getting sent to Iraq, etc). The price you pay at the pump isn't the only price there is to be paid.

          But you don't pay it AT THE PUMP.

          And if YOU decide to buy the low-pollution high-price alternative you don't get the benefit of EVERYBODY ELSE doing the same thing. So you still pay the externalized costs AND pay for the "high-priced spread".

          The externalized prices are a tragedy of the commons (in the eco
    • Re:Oil Companies (Score:5, Interesting)

      by vertinox ( 846076 ) on Wednesday May 02, 2007 @05:12PM (#18964203)
      are they securing their future and/or slowing solar tech down?

      Maybe they know their business model is about to die a very bad death due to market changes we don't know about.

      Remember, the oil companies came up with the Peak Oil theory, not the environmentalists.
    • Without heavy price protection, I will bet that big corps will not be able to sell power in dry rural areas, particularly in the South West.

      But they will DEFINITELY be selling power in major metropolitan areas. The tiny amount of sun my Condo gets in NYC is no where near enough to power my requirements. (On the other hand, my carbon footprint is about 1/3 average, because I use the subway instead of owning a car).

    • It is always more efficient to do stuff in bulk.
    • Re:Oil Companies (Score:4, Informative)

      by Ungrounded Lightning ( 62228 ) on Wednesday May 02, 2007 @06:39PM (#18965181) Journal
      I notice oil companies are heavily involved in solar energy, are they securing their future and/or slowing solar tech down?

      Oil companies recognized a long time ago that much of their business was selling energy - or the means to obtain usable energy. And long before the whole "global warming" flap (back during the last "here comes an ice age" flap, actually) they recognized that using their products caused pollution, and people were looking for cleaner ways to get energy - which might reduce their market.

      It makes sense for them to be able to make money from the big-business end of selling people the means to get usable energy. That way, if the market suddenly shifts to something else, they get to make money off that to compensate for the lost revenue on the old stuff. And if research is needed they had a LOT of money to invest in it - just as they invest in exploration for more oil deposits.

      So they did a lot of research on ways to make money by enabling people to make energy OTHER than by pumping, refining, and selling oil.

      One of those was photovoltaic panels. ARCO, for instance, did a bunch of work on that, eventually bringing quality modules to market at prices that make them practical in a large number of locations. (That operation has been absorbed into BP Solar if I have my players sorted out correctly.)

      They'll be happy to sell you oil to burn in engines. They'll be happy to sell you photovoltaic modules. (They'll probably be happy to sell you fusion engines if they ever work out, too.)

      Trying to keep solar energy out of the market does them no good. If somebody else comes up with something practical and they CAN'T stop it, they lose revenue on oil and don't get compensating revenue from the replacement. So their best strategy is to be in that market with a product competitive enough to give them significant market share, at a price that gives them a decent return but doesn't cripple the consumer. (And first company that makes a breakthrough that starts the switchover gets the lion's share of the money to be made.) They're smart enough to realize this.
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Groggnrath ( 1089073 )

      I notice oil companies are heavily involved in solar energy, are they securing their future and/or slowing solar tech down?

      They speed it up. Peak oil works like this: Let us say petrol-company "A" can make X.XX dollars per gallon of refined gas. This is because crude oil is cheap, it only costs =~.75 USD per barrel of crude oil. Now lets say Iraq/Kuwait runs out of liquid hydrocarbon (pump-able crude oil) (not projected for another 20 years). And lets say petrol-company "A" makes a deal with Canada for Tar sands Hydrocarbons, to make crude oil, it will cost 1.18 USD per barrel of crude oil, because tar sands require addition

    • by geekoid ( 135745 )
      IF a petroleum company had good usabe cheap and practicl solar technology, they could make a lot more money lisenseing the tech then they can from petroleum. Factor in the fact that even with 'prefect' cells god enough to run a house or SUV with there would still be a 10-20 year conversion process. During that time thjey would be getting money from both sides of the coin.

      Business are about money.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by xtal ( 49134 )
      Oil companies know what the score is with actual reserves. Extrapolate from there.
  • by ScrewMaster ( 602015 ) on Wednesday May 02, 2007 @04:46PM (#18963809)
    Yet Another Solar Panel "Breakthrough". Wake me when it's over.
    • Re:YASPB (Score:5, Insightful)

      by hey! ( 33014 ) on Wednesday May 02, 2007 @04:57PM (#18963973) Homepage Journal
      The problem is not that solar panels aren't improving fast enough.

      The problem is that petroleum is still so cheap.

      So for the time being, we have not crossed any economic thresholds for application types, nor are we looking at any such developments in the next serval years. So while basic engineering developments are promising, we aren't going see much investment aimed at making solar part of our daily lives.

      We haven't reach world peak petroleum production yet. As we approach it, and the rate of production increase slows relative to world economic growth, things will change.
      • We haven't reach world peak petroleum production yet.

        You sure about that? I think we're there just about now.

        http://biz.yahoo.com/seekingalpha/070502/34218_id. html?.v=1 [yahoo.com]
        • Re:YASPB (Score:4, Interesting)

          by Rei ( 128717 ) on Wednesday May 02, 2007 @06:30PM (#18965093) Homepage
          Yawn, yet another peak oil nut. Wake me when we hit it.

          Oh, and while you're at it, explain why bitumen, coal liquifaction, thermal depolymerization, oil shale extraction, methane reformation (including methane hydrates and clathrates), sugarcane ethanol, cellulosic ethanol, and outright Fischer-Tropsh/Sabatier synthesis from CO/CO2 (using, say, nuclear power), won't work. Not just a handful of them: ALL of them, because each one alone has the potential to majorly cut (if not completly eliminate) the load on natural petroleum. Yes, they're more expensive (although some, such as bitumen, coal liquifaction, and sugarcane ethanol, are economical at current prices). Yes, expanding our capacity using them would take 5-10 years (but you'd have to believe that there's a huge international conspiracy to believe that we're going to "run out" in that timeframe -- also, investments in syncrude production have been way, way up for a couple years already). Yes, some of them would do a number on the environment (widespread use of sugarcane ethanol? Goodbye, rainforests!). But they all exist, they all work, and they all have their price. If you really believe we're due for peak oil, explain why *none* of them will work at any non-civilization-collapsing price.
          • I think that "peak oil" usually refers to extraction of petroleum oil in the ground. Other than oil shale, all of those examples are converting something that's not oil in the ground into a liquid hydrocarbon fuel. If and when those processes are start to be used compensate for a shortage of oil, it will be a good indication that peak oil has indeed occurred.
            • by Belial6 ( 794905 )
              OK, explain how not pumping more in a particular year shows any correlation to how much is actually there, as opposed to showing how much has been used, or how much pumping power is being utilized. "Peak Oil Production" sounds an awful lot like the oil companies have found a way to get wack-job environmentalists to rationalize their artificial scarcity. Unless, your part of the VERY small minority that thinks oil is not a fossil fuel, you would have to agree that all of the oil that there is, and will be
      • The problem is not that solar panels aren't improving fast enough.

        The problem is that petroleum is still so cheap.

        The problem for solar power is that the efficiency is low enough and manufacturing costs high enough that it makes it difficult for the average home owner to invest in a system. The cost to purchase and install a solar voltaic system for an average home owner is in the realm of $30k and it will take about 20 years to pay for itself based on reduced power bills.

        What we need is better efficiency w

      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by icsEater ( 1093717 )

        Exactly.

        The technology is already there, but it's the economics that haven't been worked out yet.

        I remembered back in December, Slashdot covered the high efficiency multi-junction solar cells with a 40% conversion efficiency from Boeing's Spectrolab. According to the press release, they already had a fully functional 33 kilowatt generator in the Australian outback.

        Too bad according to Wikipedia, it costs up to $40 per cm^2.

        http://www.boeing.com/ids/news/2006/q4/061206b_nr. html [boeing.com]
        href=http://en [slashdot.org]

        • by drix ( 4602 )
          There are methods of generating electricity from the sun that exist right now, today, and are or will soon be competitive ($/MW) with coal, oil and NG-fired generators. See www.stirlingenergy.com [stirlingenergy.com].

          This whole addicted to oil this is not nearly as intractable as the entrenched powers-that-be would like you to believe.
      • We haven't reach world peak petroleum production yet. As we approach it, and the rate of production increase slows relative to world economic growth, things will change.

        But politically-motivated "activists" insist on change RIGHT NOW, DAMMIT!
    • Well you got modded down for it but I share your scepticism. Never a day goes by (especially here on slashdot) without some 'breakthrough' in energy tech by some researchers who appear to be trying to justify their grant money. Even those that do have a realistic chance of going into production often do not meet performance expectations or have environmental side-effects that negate the reasons for persuing them in the first place.
    • Blah blah blah. This is a tech site. The articles are about technology. Up there, in the upper left corner, see that slogan? Does it read "News for nerds, stuff that matters, but only if it's a miracle of modern science?" No, it does not.

      You don't have to jizz yourself because somebody discovered something. But remaining willfully ignorant and coming in here only to ridicule people who actually take interest in this stuff marks you as a dunce and a Luddite.

      • Re:YASPB (Score:4, Interesting)

        by ScrewMaster ( 602015 ) on Wednesday May 02, 2007 @06:57PM (#18965321)
        I don't want miracles. Miracles won't keep my lights on at night, or run my microwave. What I want is practical, manufacturable technology. Don't misunderstand me ... I think the mass-production of highly-efficient, cheap PV cells would revolutionize a lot of things. For that matter, the topic of solar power has interested me for the better part of forty years: I built a solar furnace as a kid out of several Fresnel lenses and some firebrick. Vaporized coins with the thing. On the other hand, I am getting tired of this flood of articles loudly proclaiming that this prototype cell technology, for sure, is the next big "scientific miracle" of the century. Let me know when I can pick up a 4x8 of the stuff at Home Depot for the price of sheet of plywood. Now that would be a miracle.

        And maybe this one will be the one ... but I doubt it. I also didn't ridicule anyone. You'll pardon me while I go read comments by people a little more tolerant of other's views than you are. Huh. I guess I did ridicule someone after all.
    • won't be patented.

      I mean, according to the article,

      The essence of the new recipe is to use cetyltrimethylammonium bromide instead of the standard alkylphosphonic acid compounds.
      which is certainly obvious (heck, there's probably prior art), especially with the new Supreme Court ruling.
  • by mlts ( 1038732 ) * on Wednesday May 02, 2007 @04:50PM (#18963865)
    Regardless if they seem to be just vapor, the more advances in getting solar panels made cheaper, with less material and less energy, and when deployed, the more electrons it can push per photon hitting it, is a definite improvement in my book.

    I'm glad people are putting money into solar, because if done right, it can turn regions of the globe which are otherwise unused (West Texas for example) into very productive areas for energy use.

    Research into solar, coupled with innovations in batteries to allow for storage of energy will go a long way into making oil into "just" a raw material for plastics as opposed to a vital fuel source.
  • by mo ( 2873 ) * on Wednesday May 02, 2007 @04:54PM (#18963917)
    From:
    http://www.sciencenews.org/articles/20060603/bob8. asp [sciencenews.org]

    "Both the Los Alamos and NREL teams calculate a maximum of 42 percent conversion of solar power to usable electricity. Conventional cells, by contrast, operate at 15 to 20 percent efficiency."
  • by metlin ( 258108 ) on Wednesday May 02, 2007 @04:57PM (#18963977) Journal
    Wil McCarthy has an interesting book called Hacking Matter [amazon.com], which talks about Quantum Dots and explains a bunch of applications.

    Quite an interesting read, and well written. And I think you can download the book online at his website [wilmccarthy.com], as well.

    Highly recommended - entertaining, informative read.
  • A long way to go yet (Score:5, Interesting)

    by flend ( 9133 ) on Wednesday May 02, 2007 @04:57PM (#18963981) Homepage
    As the summary points out, this is just a new recipe for making quantum dot tetrapods, for use in, for example, thin film solar cells where the cadmium selenide dots are encased in a polymer layer.

    As with all stories about incremental progress in solar cell there are still a few hurdles yet to overcome:

    Power conversion efficiencies from these cells are typically below 4% (eg. 1.8% original report, Sun et. al Nano Lett 3, 961). A good crystalline silicon cell will give you 12-15%.

    Stability. Nanocrystals tend to go off pretty quickly and you don't want to be replacing your solar cell every week or so.

    Cadmium is hella-toxic and _may be_ more so in nanocrystal form. A little vial of the stuff is enough to kill you, apparently. Makes you wonder about all those Ni-Cd batteries.

    However, I welcome the (eventual) coming of our new tetrapod overlords.
    • by mcrbids ( 148650 ) on Wednesday May 02, 2007 @05:34PM (#18964449) Journal
      As with all stories about incremental progress in solar cell there are still a few hurdles yet to overcome:

      What's funny is that progress is almost always incremental, and we adjust to each of these changes easily so we don't notice the advances.

      My 5-seat Saturn burns down the highway at 90 MPH, and gets over 30 MPG doing it, fully loaded, and has great handling all the way up. Try that in a 70's Comet. My dual-core laptop with 2 GB of RAM burns less power than an amazingly slower (but power efficient for its time!) K6-2 processor-based from 10 years ago. The concept of the Internet was mind-boggling 12 years ago when it was first introduced to me. Now, my 1.5 Mbit fixed IP DSL internet connection is ho hum by today's standards.

      Progress is constant, slow, and incremental. But go back 10, 20, or 50 years and compare life then to today and you might be amazed. I don't imagine that Solar power will be any different.

      Remember when a solar calculator was a big deal? Now, they're commonly available at the local $1 store. Nowadays, a 120-watt incandescent light bulb uses more electricity than virtually all the lights in my house, since the Compact Florescent bulbs I use everywhere are so efficient.

      I recently added a 1,500 foot extension to my house. So, I'm a big energy waster, right?

      Well, it looks like it actually REDUCES our energy consumption! Its got outer walls built with 2x6 instead of 2x4s, has double-paned windows, and over 2 FEET of insulation in the attic. Because of the double-pane windows, lighting needs are minimal, since we don't need to use lights during the day. The insulation is so good that when the doors/windows are closed, the temperature deviates by about 10 degrees through the day even though outside it has climbed to over 90 degrees. WOW! I don't think we'll even bother running the A/C in the older part of the house - to get comfortable, just go into the new extension!

      A big part of making solar work will be in reducing our demand for power.
      • In Mythical Sweden, where every geek has a hawt girlfriend and pixies lick your eyeballs whenever you want, they build houses that require next to no heating at all, even in the middle of winter. A meter of insulation in the attic and half a meter in the walls. Big tripple-pane, xeon gas between two panes to reflect heat radiation, windows towards the south and small such windows towards the north. Thanks to the big windows they get heating and natural light, so often they don't even need to turn the lights
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by jelle ( 14827 )
      "Power conversion efficiencies from these cells are typically below 4% (eg. 1.8% original report, Sun et. al Nano Lett 3, 961). A good crystalline silicon cell will give you 12-15%."

      2007/04/18: -> "Plastic solar cell efficiency breaks record at WFU nanotechnology center"

      The global search for a sustainable energy supply is making significant strides at Wake Forest University as researchers at the university's Center for Nanotechnology and Molecular Materials have announced that they have pushed the effici
    • by radtea ( 464814 )
      As with all stories about incremental progress in solar cell there are still a few hurdles yet to overcome:

      Yet scientists can confidently predict that solar cells made with techniques that don't exist yet will be cheaper than conventional solar cells.

      As a scientist I have always tended to dismiss Mark Twain's comment that science was the field where you got the greatest return in speculation on the tiniest investment of fact. But apparently he understood the human aspects of science pretty well.
  • Would cheap, good solar panels be an inflexion point in how we generate and use energy?

    If our home generate lots of juice, then home-charged electric (or hybrid) cars could suddenly become significantly cheaper to operate than gas cars because charging them could become cheap. Which in turn could significantly lower our reliance on Russian and Middle Eastern oil, making it easier for us to disengage from meddling over there.

    Pipe-dream or possibility?
    • Pretty much a pipe-dream, unless your home includes enough a couple acres of extra land that you can cover in solar panels.

      The unfortunate problem with solar power, indeed all forms of "alternate" energy, is that they are comparatively low-density phenomena. When you figure the physical plant required to generate enough solar power (including nighttime and off-season storage!) to be competitive with a nuclear or coal-fired power plant the difference isn't as extreme as you might think. Yes, a solar plant
      • Orbital solar is likely to only be cost efficient if the panels can be made in space. There are lots of rocks in Earth orbit that could be mined, although finding the ones with the right minerals would be non-trivial. You might want to boot-strap the process by deploying small plants built down here and then using that power to run the orbital factories, but either way we're a good few decades away from being able to.

        In the mean time, this technology does two things. First, it helps us reduce our depend

      • A typical home needs about a 5 kW peak system to cover its annual power use. At the surface of the Earth you get about a kW (peak) per square meter so at 15% efficiency you need about 33 square meters of panels. That's a little under 6 meters on a side. Granted, 5 kW does not cover your peak draw, but in 41 states and DC you can do net metering http://mdsolar.blogspot.com/2007/03/net-metering. h tml [blogspot.com]. So, having a really big yard is not needed unless you want to become a commercial power generator.

        I kin
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      Pipe-dream or possibility?

      A big possibility. Remember the time when we used this black solid thing called COAL? It's just the way science and technology goes. We're hitting a new industrial revolution where the key technology is nanotech.

      Just as the discovery of the transistor made a revolution in electronics, the discovery of methods to create and handle nanomaterials is preparing us to make better tools, leading to more methods, materials, and so on.

      The problem right now, is not that we can find cheap ene
  • WoW players have known about this for a long time [youtube.com].
  • Imagine being attacked by an army of quantum dots.
  • by Deagol ( 323173 ) on Wednesday May 02, 2007 @05:51PM (#18964661) Homepage
    I've been a /. member for 10 years now, and these "cheaper, more efficient" solar panel techniques have popped up at least a two or three times a year. When the hell can I go shopping for consumer grade panels and find something substantially below $4/Watt?

    Given the subsidies solar research has had since the 70s, I can't figure out why progress has been so slow for the past 30 years. I'm not a big conspiracy buff, but, given the explosive rate of technology on other fronts over the same period, something just doesn't seem right.

    • by sien ( 35268 ) on Wednesday May 02, 2007 @06:24PM (#18965047) Homepage
      Solar research has not had a lot of research dollars compared to fusion research, let alone any form of military research. This wasn't unreasonable when it seemed like there was no good reason for not using coal for power.

      There has actually been fairly consistent, gradual improvement in solar panels.

      If you're interested, get a hold of the May 8th Economist and check the Technology Quarterly. The article is online but requires an Economist subscription. There was an article on solar panels that was very informative. First, on price:

      Even so, many people believe the prospects for solar energy have never looked brighter. Decades of research have improved the efficiency of silicon-based solar cells from 6% to an average of 15% today, whereas improvements in manufacturing have reduced the price of modules from about $200 per watt in the 1950s to $2.70 in 2004. Within three to eight years, many in the industry expect the price of solar power to be cost-competitive with electricity from the grid.

      There is also a very interesting quote on how the technology can be compared to other technologies dealing with silicon and thin films.

      The solar industry has in the past profited from the manufacturing improvements of chipmakers, and is now finding ways to benefit from innovations in other high-tech fields. "I think of the silicon solar-cell industry as a marriage between the semiconductor industry, where it gets its base technology, and the CD industry, which is very high volume," says Richard Swanson, SunPower's president and technology chief. Applied Materials, a leading maker of chipmaking gear, recently decided to apply its expertise in making flat-panel displays to thin-film solar panels.

      There is also a graph in the article showing installed solar power capacity from 1994 to 2004. In 1994 there was about 0.2GW of installed solar power. In 2004 there was about 2.5GW of installed power.

      From the article, you could go ahead and make up a 'Sol's Law', similar to Moore's law. It would not have anything like the 18 month double of transistor packing, but may have 10 year order of magnitudes of increases in installed solar panels and considerable reductions in cost.

      • by Deagol ( 323173 )

        Even so, many people believe the prospects for solar energy have never looked brighter. Decades of research have improved the efficiency of silicon-based solar cells from 6% to an average of 15% today, whereas improvements in manufacturing have reduced the price of modules from about $200 per watt in the 1950s to $2.70 in 2004. Within three to eight years, many in the industry expect the price of solar power to be cost-competitive with electricity from the grid.

        That must be in huge lots. If you can loc

    • I've been a /. member for 10 years now, and these "cheaper, more efficient" solar panel techniques have popped up at least a two or three times a year. When the hell can I go shopping for consumer grade panels and find something substantially below $4/Watt?

      I've been watching solar power issues for thirty years - and "cheaper, more efficient" solar cells have been "coming Real Soon Now because of this Cool Discovery" about every six months all that time.

    • Subsidies for solar are relatively tiny. But I think they get a lot of spinoffs from other semiconductor research.

      From some random policy paper [udel.edu]:

      But such a prognosis neglects the empirical evidence for expecting continued declines in PV prices. For example, average selling prices of PV modules have decreased from $55/Wp (in 2001 dollars) in 1976 to approximately $3.50/Wp in 2001 (Harmon, 2000; Maycock, 2002). For our analysis, we set the breakeven price of PV modules at $1.50/Wp, which is within the range

    • by jmorris42 ( 1458 ) * <jmorris@NOSpAM.beau.org> on Wednesday May 02, 2007 @09:02PM (#18966661)
      > Given the subsidies solar research has had since the 70s, I can't figure out why progress has been so slow for the past 30 years.

      There are several limits on cheap solar. Start with an absolute upper limit on efficiency. 100% is not likely in our lifetime, I'd doubt exceeding 50% is likely in the next hundred years. There are already panels in the marketplace in the 15-20% range and we are always reading about better stuff in the labs. So there probably isn't even another whole doubling of output power to research. It isn't like semiconductor transistor counts and operating speeds that apparently can keep on increasing for another couple of decades according to Moore's Law.

      So that leaves existing power/area systems becoming more affordable sweetened with a little more efficiency now and then. But any panel based photovoltaic system can't escape needing a lot of surface area of fairly hi tech material along with the basic expenses involved in manufacturing, transporting and installing large bulky things. Heck, basic roofing material ain't exactly cheap when you have to buy enough to cover your roof and pay people to go up there and install it. It also implies a pretty hard limit to the maximum power load a home can have and still be a candidate for solar. Environmental control is the big drain now and can be greatly reduced with better home design. But other power drains are growing and if they exceed what can be collected that will scuttle the notion of independence from the grid.

      And last there is the final part of a solar system, the control and storage system. Hi current electronics built and installed to code isn't cheap and isn't likely to experience more than a halving in price anytime soon. Storage for now means batteries and we all know they are THE limit on so much modern tech. So until somebody cracks that nut alternative power is going to be held back along with electric cars and portable electronics.
      • We can get a pretty large install base before storage becomes a big issue. When you do net metering, solar displaces peak load generation, often natural gas and has the effect of bringing electricity costs down since those expensive sources are not used so much. Going up to about 20% of the grid supply is not a big problem. It is when you start getting close to covering 50% of demand at peak that things get dicey. Then the base load power supply is shutting down and this is not what it was built to do. S
      • Agreed, the efficiency for photovoltaic can't really even match solar thermal...

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SEGS [wikipedia.org]

        If they can find a way to get these to the consumer market it could be cheap
        and could be made more long term reliable.

    • by mdsolar ( 1045926 ) on Wednesday May 02, 2007 @10:31PM (#18967449) Homepage Journal
      It is hard to find panels that cheap because the raw material supply is tight just now. As this clears up in the next couple years $3/Watt should be pretty common (delivered not installed). The other thing that has kept prices high is lack of industrial scale. You can look at page 20 of this report http://www.redrok.com/pvreport.pdf [redrok.com] to see that a 500 MW production plant reduces costs by a factor of 4. One of at least two plants of this size going into the US this year is described here: http://www.renewableenergyaccess.com/rea/news/stor y?id=47621 [renewablee...access.com]. As these crank up, you should see prices drop even farther. If you want to signup for renting panels from the other plant follow the links at http://mdsolar.blogspot.com/2007/01/slashdot-users -selling-solar.html [blogspot.com].
  • by dorix ( 414150 ) on Wednesday May 02, 2007 @06:00PM (#18964793)
    #!/usr/bin/perl

    my @firstwords = ("Quantum", "Solar", "Mysterious", "Ancient", "Lovecraftian");
    my @secondwords = ("Dot", "Nanotube", "Lubricant", "Artifact", "Octogenarian");
    my @thirdwords = ("Recipe", "Formula", "Scripture", "Rumour", "Box", "Thingy");

    my $firstword = @firstwords[int(rand($#firstwords + 1))];
    my $secondword = @secondwords[int(rand($#secondwords + 1))];
    my $thirdword = @thirdwords[int(rand($#thirdwords + 1))];

    print "$firstword $secondword $thirdword May Lead To Cheaper Solar Panels\n";
  • So it seems like every time I blink, Slashdot is posting some story about a revolution in photovoltaic technologies. But when are these revolutions going to trickle down to actual products that I can mount on the roof of my home?

    Maybe I'm not looking in the right places, but I only ever see incremental improvements in PV technology at the retail level. Perhaps the Slashdot editors should hold back on some of these vaporware announcements and focus more on tangible products that can make a difference now.
  • How about storage (Score:3, Interesting)

    by phorm ( 591458 ) on Wednesday May 02, 2007 @06:41PM (#18965193) Journal
    Even if we come up with some super-efficient way to transfer solar energy into useful electricity, there is one barrier that will remain:

    How do we store it?

    It seems to me that we will need both a new source of energy and a way to harvest/store it. Current oil/gasoline, as a liquid or vapor, is both. That means that it works fairly independent of outside factors with the exemption of operating-temperature limitations.

    With solar energy, we need it to be available not just on the nice sunny days, but the nights, and the cloudy not-so-sunny days too. In countries like Canada or other places that see a fair bit of snow, we'll need ways to properly keep the collectors unobscured (such as heated solar panels) in order to keep the snow off, and ways to clean them when they get dirty.

    We're making lots of interesting progress, but there's a whole, huge industry out there if the big push away from fossil-fuels ends up with solar as a primary replacement. Some people have mentioned the oil companies being involved, but my thoughts are that they can find plenty of ways to make money in the new industry. In fact, many of the oil-producing nations would also be prime areas for solar-collection, so they might do just fine in such a new market.
    • by geekoid ( 135745 )
      you right, OTOH not needing to use the grid during the day would have a giant impact.
    • by flyingfsck ( 986395 ) on Wednesday May 02, 2007 @07:02PM (#18965383)
      Alternatively, you could build a world-wide grid. The sun is always shining somewhere.
    • Re:How about storage (Score:4, Interesting)

      by pclminion ( 145572 ) on Wednesday May 02, 2007 @07:05PM (#18965413)

      Even if we come up with some super-efficient way to transfer solar energy into useful electricity, there is one barrier that will remain: How do we store it?

      How about in the grid? Tear down the coal burning plants and replace them with gigantic flywheel plants. During the day, excess solar energy spins up the flywheels. During night, the flywheels dole out the stored energy to meet the nighttime demand. This system might be carefully calibrated so that very little excess energy is wasted (generated by the photovoltaics, but nowhere to store it). And any small amount that WAS left over could just be used to electrolyze water and you'd get a little hydrogen out of the deal.

      This doesn't do anything to directly address petroleum oil consumption of vehicles. But it would reduce the significant portion of total CO2 output from fossil fuel electric power generation.

      Vehicles inherently NEED a dense, easily mobile power source. This is because they, well, MOVE. We haven't figured out a way to store renewable energy in a vehicle with the same density and mobility. But instead of chucking the whole idea just because we can't see how to apply it to vehicles, at least we might make an impact on other levels.

    • by matt21811 ( 830841 ) on Wednesday May 02, 2007 @07:17PM (#18965549) Homepage
      "How do we store it?"

      By pumping water uphill.
  • And here's the obligatory: Production of units for sale to the public is expected in about 5 years.

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