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Solar Cells of Tomorrow

written by: vishalseafarer•edited by: Lamar Stonecypher•updated: 8/31/2010

Mention solar cells and the first thing that comes to your mind is pictures of huge solar panels in the middle of the desert or on rooftops. Things are all set to change with the next generation of solar cells.

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    Introduction

    Solar Energy is fast gaining recognition as the energy of the future. Many of you have heard what solar energy is and how solar cells play a vital role in producing green, renewable electricity. However there is a major drawback. The number of solar cells needed to generate a small amount of electricity is high. Installation costs are high, although in the long run there will be no further investments needed and power will be obtained free of cost. The solar cells of the future are aimed at reducing the costs and size of the solar cell and increasing its efficiency. Until then consumers have to rely on conventional sources of energy that are not environmentally friendly. What are the solar cells of the future going be like?

    Although solar cells are still in their infant stages, researchers are burning the midnight oil to develop solar cells with higher energy output. The solar cells that are made with various technologies boast of giving more energy output with materials made at cheaper cost and ones that are environmentally friendly and easily available.

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    The Fields of Science that Hold Promise for the Solar Cells of the Future

    Here are some of the fields of science that might be the major contributors in producing the next generation of solar cells.

    Nanotechnology: Nanotechnology is the technology of 21st century. This field of science shows a lot of promise in producing the solar cells of the future. There are many approaches and techniques being produced using nanotechnology. Listed below are a couple of recent ones.

    • Scientists have come up with materials in which the solar cells are transparent and lightweight. If this is commercially viable, then the day won't be far away when you will be looking out of closed windows with glass panes and know that electricity is being generated as you admire the skyline.
    • In China, scientists have come up with coral-shaped nanomaterials that are seen to give very good results. They have more surface area, so the region exposed to sunlight is more, resulting in more electricity. Additionally they are very stable (in terms of performance and quality of material) over a long period of time. This material is made using tin oxide and can be enhanced to give better results, but with the current preparation methods, it is not commercially viable.

    Similarly many scientists all around the world are developing the solar cells of the future using nanotechnology in various approaches.

    Biology: Biology is yet another field of science that is expected to contribute to the solar cell of the future. Experiments using various types of algae have shown that they can trap solar energy that can be used later. But the same species of algae that scientists use aren't available in other parts of the world, so this poses a problem. More approaches in the field of biology are very close to producing better solar cells, but it is a matter of time before they made commercially viable and are available for consumers.

    Materials Science: Organic Photovoltaic cells (OPV) that are made of graphene/polymer sheets are light weight, easy to manufacture, and are economical. They are being researched in a university in southern California. These cells produce only 1.3W of power from 1000W of sunlight, which is very low when compared against the presently available solar cells that produce 14W of power from 1000W of sunlight. However, this drawback is compensated by OPVs being physically flexible. Future applications might include making power-generating clothing and using OPVs in drapes, blinds, and various other sunlight-facing household furnishings to generate power.

    In another approach it has been found that using 9% selenium with zinc oxide to create solar cells radically improves the efficiency of the sunlight that is being absorbed. Thereby more energy will be produced. Thus experiments keep taking place, and when a commercially viable solution is found, it will be a boon to everyone.

    Solar Panel Image Credit: Flickr - Dominic Alves

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    Advantages of Solar Cells of the Future - Predictions

    • Solar cells will have higher efficiency. The solar cells available in the market today give 15% efficiency, so a great number of solar cells have to be used to get a decent amount of electricity. With the increase in efficiency, the number of solar cells for a given amount of energy output will be reduced. In addition they will work for a broad spectrum of light intensities and won't stop working at times when the sun is obstructed by clouds. This will help in the generation of more amount of electricity from early in the morning to late into the evening.
    • Cells will be reduced in size and thickness. Presently available solar cells are big and thick in size. This will change in the future and their size will reduce drastically due to the various types economical materials used.
    • Solar cells will be cheaper and more economical. Using cheaper raw materials will lead to reduction in the selling price of the solar cells.
    • Cells will be easier to use. Solar cells that are available in small sizes and those which are highly efficient can be integrated easily in electronic goods.
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      Possible Applications of Tomorrow's Solar Cells

      If solar cells get better than their present state, they will be widely used in the field of domestic power generation, automobiles, as well as for cooking and heating purposes.

      • Powering entire households by using solar cells in paints and other parts of the house is being researched. This will certainly be a revolutionary technology and electricity will be cheaper like never before.
      • They will be the alternate sources to power electronic gadgets like cell phones, iPods, laptops, etc. If this really happens, it will be good news for people who are hooked to cell phones and laptops for a major part of the day and who will surely switch over to using solar energy.
      • Lots of automobiles are already equipped with solar cells. With highly efficient solar cells one need not have to worry about gas bills again. To have a glimpse of how this can be let us take the example of the 3021 km annual car race for the solar powered vehicles from Darwin to Adelaide in Australia. Back in 1987 when this race was first run, the average speed of the cars was around 67 km/hr, and back in 2005 it was 103 km/hr! Isn't that just awesome?

      It won't be long before the solar cells of the future arrive in the market. But the question is how soon and how much more efficient will they be? Until then, it is good to go green earlier rather than waiting for the future to arrive.

      Sources:

      1) Technical Studies.

      2) Alternative Energy News

      3) rsc.org