Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Enchantment and Angels

Over the past years, I have continually talked about the development of new age materials that can convert the surrounding light into usable energy. I have used the word "power paint" because 20 years ago, we used to talk about the day when this brand new science of nanotechnology would surely lead us to such photon/electron materials. Perhaps it was Drexler who first used it. I don't think it was Smalley. But, it might have been Duncan.

Somebody made up the term. That was the easy part. (sort of) But the development of a real power paint, which was in some sense guarenteed to become a reality, was still a long way off for a variety of reasons.

Then, perhaps two years ago, I walked into the office of my boss, and said,

Guess What?

Somebody is actually developing power paint. The story I had read was the power paint story from Canada. Until that time, I had not actually seen the words used in conjunction with solar photovoltaic devices.

There have been a lot of stories since, but this weekend, I saw this story from the Land of Enchantment.

NMSU/Wake Forest solar breakthrough
will help spur viability of alternative energy

SANTA FE -- Imagine being able to “paint” your roof with enough alternative energy to heat and cool your home. What if soldiers in the field could carry an energy source in a roll of plastic wrap in their backpacks?

Those ideas sound like science fiction, particularly in the wake of the rising costs of fossil fuel.

But both are on the way to becoming reality because of a breakthrough in solar research by a team of scientists from New Mexico State University and Wake Forest University.

While traditional solar panels are made of silicon, which is expensive, brittle and shatters like glass, organic solar cells being developed by this team are made of plastic that is relatively inexpensive, flexible, can be wrapped around structures or even applied like paint, said physicist Seamus Curran, head of the nanotechnology laboratory at NMSU.

Nanotechnology, or molecular manufacturing, refers to the ability to build things one atom at a time.

The relatively low energy efficiency levels produced by organic solar cells have been a drawback. To be effective producers of energy, they must be able to convert 10 percent of the energy in sunlight to electricity. Typical silicon panels are about 12 percent energy conversion efficient.

That level of energy conversion has been a difficult reach for researchers on organic solar technology, with many of them hitting about 3 to 4 percent. But the NMSU/Wake Forest team has achieved a solar energy efficiency level of 5.2 percent.

Conventional thinking has been that that landmark was at least a decade away. With this group’s research, it may be only four or five years before plastic solar cells are a reality for consumers, Curran added.

The importance of the breakthrough cannot be underestimated, Curran said. A cheap, flexible plastic made of a polymer blend would revolutionize the solar market.

New Mexico Economic Development Department Secretary Rick Homans added, “This breakthrough pushes the state of New Mexico further ahead in the development of usable solar energy, a vital national resource. It combines two of the important clusters on which the state is focused: renewable energy and micro nano systems, and underlines the strong research base of our state universities.

And towards the end of last week, I came across this story from the City of Angels.

UCLA Makes Thin-Film Polymer Solar Progress
October 13, 2005
Los Angeles

Using solar cell made out of everyday plastics could promise to be a more affordable way to harness the sun's rays, say researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science.

In research published in Nature Materials magazine, UCLA engineering professor Yang Yang, postdoctoral researcher Gang Li and graduate student Vishal Shrotriya showcase their work on a new plastic (or polymer) solar cell they hope to produce at 10 to 20 percent of the current cost of traditional cells, thus making the technology more widely available.

Made of a single layer of plastic sandwiched between two conductive electrodes, UCLA's solar cell is easy to mass-produce and costs much less to make. The polymers used in its construction are commercially available in such large quantities that Yang hopes cost-conscious consumers worldwide will quickly adopt the technology.

According to Yang, the 4.4 percent efficiency achieved by UCLA is the highest number yet published for plastic solar cells (Ed. note: It should be mentioned that recent achievements above the 5 percent mark were announced this week from a team of researchers from New Mexico State University and Wake Forest University)

"We hope that ultimately solar energy can be extensively used in the commercial sector as well as the private sector. Imagine solar cells installed in cars to absorb solar energy to replace the traditional use of diesel and gas. People will vie to park their cars on the top level of parking garages so their cars can be charged under sunlight. "

Yes, Imagine.

Imagine a solar nano power paint race between the great labs

of the world,

instead of a nuclear arms race,

instead of a race to the bottom for the last glops of oil.

Imagine all structure, that sees light, painted with this material.

Imagine these materials, in reverse, emitting soft light from your ceiling,

or your walls, or the highway, or your clothes, or your car interior.

Imagine these materials in the floors, in the fabric of your couch

tuned to absorb the heat out of a room, and off of your body,

all the while converting that heat to usable energy for your plasma screen.

Imagine a world without oil.

Without Dick Cheney.






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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm ready for these imaginary technological breakthroughs to manifest. Think it will happen in our lifetimes?
This would liberate people from the fate of staying within the proximity of an electrical grid, dependent on the power plant. Independent, small scale, and individualized power plants make development possible in outposts where no wires have ever reached. The implicatons for cities is mindboggling and, for the so called "third world nations," nothing short of revolutionary.

1:04 AM  
Blogger oZ said...

This technology works with the grid and without the grid. But a unified grid-tied system fed by many, many inputs is a healthy one and capable of robustly providing the needs of an advanced civilization. See the "shoot out" story from last week for more.

7:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

truly visionary Oz. thanks. MS.

7:37 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What do we do to make this reality the real reality and the real reality the unreal one?

I ask this of all of us who care about our children, the earth, and future of humankind.

10:30 AM  

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