back to article Big Blue boffins hatch dirt-cheap solar cells

IBM researchers have developed a new class of solar-powered electricity-generating cells that they claim will bring photovoltaic cells closer to cost parity with conventional energy sources. The researchers from IBM's T. J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, New York have published their findings in a paper entitled " …

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Anonymous Coward

ouch

gotta feel like a mug if you spent a truck load on a solar powerplant pre new solar cells.

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h 6
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Simples.

Just replace your old less efficient cells. It's no big deal. -h

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Unhappy

can it make a profit this quarter ?

No, patent it and forget it then

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Progress

This could be a very significant innovation. Where I live in the UK several new housing estates have gone up recently. Not one house has been built with solar panels on the roof and it's so frustrating. They're way too expensive and disruptive to retro fit, particularly for someone who's just moved in. If panels become cheap and available enough I hope they'll be compulsory on new builds in the UK. Proportionally they'd add virtually nothing to the cost of a new home. We've really got to start thinking about this stuff now.

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I'll buy 5

my fucking electric bill is ridiculous.

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Boffin

Only 9.6%?

9.6% is not even close to current space rated solar cells. Most Ge-As Solar Cells are beginning to hit 30-35% and even standard old fashioned Multi-junction Silicon cells hit 15+%.

If these cells can be manufactured more easily and cheaper then that is a huge bonus, but we will need to see some pretty massive efficiency increases before they start looking like potential replacements for current cells (at least in the space environment - i cant comment on land based environments sorry, thats not my area)...

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WTF?

Cost

If the cost to produce is much less then you're not going to worry. A space based system (whilst it obviously has some budget constraints) does not have the same financial constraints as a domestic user.

If 9.6% is the rate immediately, then I'll be surprised if they aren't talking nearly 20 in a years time.

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we're supposedly talking about terrestrial applications here

Space rated stuff may boost very high performance, but it is also ridiculously expensive and only really worth its money because of the high cost of sending payload into orbit.

While 30% efficiencies would be nice in solar cells for large scale terrestrial applications, they're not much use if they cost tens of thousands of $$$ per square meter. The real requirements here are low cost and simplicity in production, with a decent efficiency.

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Coat

Well

The next time I have to buy solar cells for my house IN SPACE, I'll look you up.

I say just create these as shingles for roofs, and "plug" them into a circuit system on the roof. Make a building code to mandate their use (if it's within reasonable price compared to normal asphalt shingles), or at the very least gov't (or utility co) subsidize their use. A bit of tar underneath and you get roofing AND the entire roof surface for lecy generation. Siding might be nice, but too vertical for any real gain (unless my house was north of the Arctic Circle).

On the utility co. subsidizing note, perhaps have one of these solar array projects rent suburban roof space to reshingle and maintain. Sure, it's not a dedicated space in the desert, but your power generator(s) are on location to the people who need the power in the first place. Save on infrastructure!

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If only they could follow the sun

This is potentially really big news. If cheap enough, we'll all be sticking the things on our houses, even in the cloudy northern Europe climes. At least those of us who's like to save a few quid on the electricity bills. OTOH, I guess the installation cost still makes up a large % of cost, rather than the actual cost of the PV cells?

... if only we could develop a way for them to follow the sun, like a sunflower does that would hugely improve their efficiency even more. Don't you think?

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Happy

It's called...

A Solar Tracker

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Boffin

Don't follow, be agnostic

I read an article recently (New Scientist?) about the use of carbon nanotubes & PV material to remove the need to orient the panel towards the sun; they would work like little optical fibres and accept light from any direction with relatively little effect on the amount of energy absorbed.

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IT Angle

More information...

Thanks for the interest in this work! If anyone would like to know more about the science behind this story, we've set the original research article as free to access; you can find it through the link in the story, or here: http://www.materialsviews.com/matview/display/en/1412/TEXT

Adrian Miller

Advanced Materials

(IT? because I've lurked on the register so long I couldn't resist it :) )

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Pint

@AdrianMiller

Welcome. :)

Nice to see some "new faces".

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So...

...we should continue to wait, then.

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Containers

Are IBM going to use this on their containerised datacentres?

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Pint

@Adrian Miller

Thanks for that, I'll grab it now. Here's hoping these things are cheap as chips (npi).

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Happy

Won't be as cheap as you might think

Full marks for avoiding cadmium (toxic), indium and tellurium (expensive and fairly rare)

But what's this, Hydrazine? Spin coating?

Hydrazine is only Nitrogen and Hydrogen. It's a rocket fuel with an exposure limit in the PPM range (the *low* PPM range, like a nerve gas) and costs about $60/lb. It is *very* toxic and vapourises fairly easily. IIRC it was used to make gas mantles using Thoria (Thorium Oxide). I am unaware of *any* large scale uses for it in modern mfg except as rocket fuel.

As for spin coating this will limit the size of cell producable. It needs some kind of roll to roll process stream.

So your looking at a multiple tank process line in a sealed environment.

However for a polycrystal flexible solar cell 9.6% is not bad.

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Hydrazine

Bah. Like you say, its Nitrogen and Hydrogen. If it becomes profitable to use it in a bulk process, production will ramp up and the price will drop from the 'super-specialist' price range to 'cheaper than dirt' in a few years. As for toxicity, it looks to have the same 1ppm exposure limit as Chlorine (production in the US alone, about 1 million tons per month), so I can't imagine that would be a huge obstacle either. It will probably fail for some much more prosaic reason.

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It will probably fail for some much more prosaic reason.

Yeah, lack of funding due to executive short-sightedness, and because it might potentially be useful to the world at large.

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Why It Will Fail

It will fail because the amount of land it takes to produce sufficient power is quite larger than with nuclear power.

It will fail because roofs made of solor cells are costly to implement and maintain. You quickly hear of some optimum idealized energy savings but not taking into account interest compounded on money you'd save with a conventional roof, that even materials more durable for a roof need replaced several times during the expected lifespan of a building unless another exotic and costly material replaces those typical.

Solar cells are a great idea for supplementary power generation, but mostly in ways people don't mention, by putting arrays in otherwise unusable tracts of land near existing power grid infrastructure, NOT on homes, not on cars, not in plots next to companies wanting the green marketing spin.

We haven't heard anything about the lifespan of new solar cell technology, another key factor regardless of the maintenance costs of existing tech. Idealists will claim no additional costs because they like to assume someone else will pick up the bill.

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Here Here / Hear Hear!

Solar, wind and tidal are great for providing large amounts of fairly intermittent power. There are industries where the availability of such power could actually be quite useful, (if it were cheap enough.) Similarly, “smart appliances” could take advantage of a power grid with fluctuating supply.

Unfortunately for the “all eco-friendly renewable” crowd, there will *always* be a need for a reliable base power load. This is where Hydro, geothermal and most importantly Nuclear shine. Geothermal tech hasn't seen nearly enough investment, and so is really just getting started. Hydro causes massive environmental damage, and may not be viable in the long term due to the looming freshwater issues.

I personally do believe that (with the exception of admittedly fairly expensive quick-response plants,) we need to see the backside of hydrocarbon power generation. Phasing this technology out globally over the next 50-100 years should be obtainable, if we can just coach the NIMBYs past their Nuclear paranoia. I think that there are simply far more important things to use coal, natural gas and oil for than burning it for electricity. (Or transportation, but that’s another rant.)

Nuclear is the cleanest, safest and cheapest way to go for base load power generation; especially if we can perfect fourth generation plants that can re-use some of our nuclear waste. Good solar tech will help...but not as much as properly educating the populace on the real (lack of) risks associated wiht nuclear.

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Stop

Pure FUD

Clearly you are out of touch with this area as you are spewing FUD everywhere. Lifespan for domestic solar cells is a good 40 years. The FIT (feed in tarriff) subsidy, starting this year means every kWp you generate and use will also earn you ~35p subsidy. There has never been a better time to put solar in and on places, counting in the generous subsidies available most systems will have paid for them selves themselves in 10 years or so, leaving the owner with 30 years of free energy.

The FIT rate diminishes year on year but you keep the subsidy rate you start on so anyone thinking about it shouldn't procrastinate. Many companies offer leasing deals if you don't want to part with several grand up front.

The current nuclear station designs are a dangerous anachronism and, when factoring in decomissioning costs, very bloody expensive too. Until the nuclear industry pulls its finger out and starts proposing and building safer, cleaner, cleverer reactors (such as Liquid Fluoride Thorium reactors) they don't deserve any more investment. I mean, solar panels may contain a few heavy metals but at least they don't make frikken plutonium!

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Grenade

@ Roger Heathcote

35p subsidy? Not in Canada. If your electrical generation relies on subsidies to be viable, it isn't really viable.

As to "Building newer, cleaner reactors," I couldn't agree more! IIRC, the Americans are doing exactly that. India is working on a third-generation reactor, and South Africa on a fourth. (?)

Who cares if the nuke plants generate plutonium? You say that like it's a bad thing. Plutonium is still fissile, we can generate more power off of it. Besides, it's a lump of ***ing metal. It's not in the aptmosphere or the water; it's a hunk of metal sitting in a sealed room. We have the technology and the wherewithal to actually do something with it. We can make weapons out of it. We can put it back into a reactor for more power. We can put it into a radio-electric generator or we can bury it in forever. (We could even shoot it into space if we were really paranoid…and stupid.)

This is as opposed to coal, which dumps an order of magnitude more radioactive material DIRECTLY INTO THE APTMOSPHERE during it’s operational lifetime than the paltry little lump of plutonium you get out of a nuke plant.

Solar, wind and tidal aren’t consistent, predictable base load power. They are great if you have a smart grid and a pile of industry that can make use of fluctuating power. (Neither the UK, the US nor Canada have much in the way of either.) You can’t run a whole grid off thready power from these sources...we still absolutely require that stable base load power.

You make the statement that nuclear is expensive, well yes it is. Only hydrocarbon generation is cheap...and then only because hydrocarbon plants don’t have to pay for the environmental impact. They are allowed to dump their waste directly into the atmosphere at no cost. Nuke plants deal with decommissioning, solar, wind, hydro and tidal must cope with stupendously high equipment and territory costs, and geothermal doesn’t really exist yet.

Remember, Solar ISN’T REMOTELY CHEAP. The amount of subsidy required to make wind, solar or tidal (most especially micro generation of same) combined with their inability to provide stable base load power places them in a whole other category. The only way we can afford them is to place a huge chunk of the burden directly on the taxpayer. (Now you may complain nuclear plants have received subsidies from various governments in the past...and rightly so. The people who own the nuke plants, like any entrepreneur, are greedy twats. The fact remains that other than hydrocarbon nuclear is the only commercially viable source of energy, and (so long as hydrocarbon generation in that country isn’t also subsidised,) nuclear really doesn’t actually require the subsidies to compete.)

I say we go nuclear for base loading, wind and solar where it makes sense, (and gets the maximum return,) Hydro where we can, and supplement with fast-reaction emergency hydrocarbon plants.

And then we put squillions into getting the efficiency of solar/wind/tidal up, their costs down, and continent-wide smart power grids capable of coping with calms, clouds and low tides before we run out of fissiles and hydrocarbons.

In your nuke and hydrocarbon-free world, where od you get your power when it's calm, night, and low tide? Not from Hydro, you'd have to flood about half the world to provide that kind of base power. So please, do tell...what is your super secret all-renewable low-impact eco-friendly way to not freeze at night?

Please remember I live in a country where -30 Celsius is perfectly normal, so "suck it up princess, you don't need power at night" is unacceptable as a response.

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Alert

Ah no

I think it is time to realise that AC generation was a bad idea and switch to easier to handle and store DC generation. We only have AC because we transmit power over a grid and this is more efficient. Base loads are required for this system to work but the system is not necssarily the best design now.

The majority of household power (heat, light) is used to heat the building - this is where some real power savings can be made mitigating further power production requirements. So with reduction in power requirements more can be derived from differing sources not necessarily from a grid.

"Nuke plants deal with decommissioning, solar, wind, hydro and tidal must cope with stupendously high equipment and territory costs, and geothermal doesn’t really exist yet."

Not one nuclear plant has made enough money in its active life to even vaguely pay for its decomissioning - as always this will be born by the customer / tax payer over and above what they have already paid in bills. Nuclear has had massive monetary input from government to keep the produced electricity price cheap and inline with other forms. Nuclear never has and never will be to too cheap to tax as was once mooted.

Geothermal does exist talk to the Icelanders - been using it for years. Geothermal suffers from being too inaccessable for commercial use away from vulcanic hotspots (usual in low occupational areas).

As for grid provide power what happens when you have a ice storm!! No grid at minus 30 and now feeling like an lump of ice. If only you had a super insulated house with simpe DC power requirements that could be met be a local CHP plant burning biomas.

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Happy

Just to keep this in perspective

Average light energy at Earth surface (AM1) about 976Wm^2. Efficiency is 9.6%. So (on average) 93W m^2.

1GW (usual power station size) requires roughly 10.75 square Km.

Solar thermal (off the shelf tech right now) is roughly 30% efficient.

IIRC 1 Kwh is roughly 10-15c at current power prices.

This will have to be *astonishingly* cheap.

Regarding Hydrazine's toxiciity / cost. Chloring has *multiple* high volume uses, ranging from chemical intermediate (Eg Silicon Tetrachloride is mostly Chlorine, not Silicon), metal processing and water purifcation. AFAIK *any* process using it has been either converted to safer alternaitves (I think some textile treatment processes used it) or phased out entirely.

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kit
Go

It is not PV solar cell, but thin film coating solar cell.

I think some people got it wrong, What they mentioned as a solar cell is in fact a PV (photo-voltaic) device which is made of silicon crystal manufactured in a very expensive clean room environment.

What IBM does, instead of using silicone, they use copper, zinc, tin, selenium, and sulfur nano particles , turning them into an composition of emulsion, which then apply onto a substrate (i.e. glass, metal, or plastic film) by means of printing, spraying, spin-coating, just like ordinary paint. Which now we describe as 'Thin Film' solar cell technology.

There are similar technologies but using different materials such as CIGS (Copper, Indium, Gallium, and Selenium). but the problems with CIGS , some of the materials are rare earth metals, they are scare in supply and expensive, Even worse, these materials are often highly poisonous. The coating technique is slow and difficult to control.

IBM seems to have solved all these problems once and for all , although the conversion rate is only 9.6% ( the best conversion rate is around 20% for CIGS ).

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