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September 25, 2010

Caltech Atwater proposes laying thin flexible sheets of solar over farm land

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Caltech professor Atwater proposes to reduce solar power installation costs: he suggests using farm equipment fitted with laser levels to quickly install large fields of flexible solar panels, laying them out the way plastic sheeting is laid out in some farming today.

The thing that's held back flexible solar cells so far is that they typically are not very efficient compared to conventional crystalline silicon solar cells. That means you need more of them, which, of course, increases costs. At the conference, Atwater showed off a couple of ways to use high-efficiency solar cell materials in flexible cells. One involved depositing gallium arsenide on a rigid surface, then peeling it off to make a flexible solar cell. The other involves growing crystalline silicon in the form of arrays of wires embedded in polymers. He dropped a sample of the latter material on the stage to demonstrate its resilience. The best of these solar cells made in the lab have achieved over 17% efficiency, he says--that's competitive with today's solar cells. (When he makes them over a large area, the efficiency is less than half that, but he thinks this can be improved).


Atwater predicts that the cost of making and installing these solar cells can be less than a dollar a watt, low enough to compete generally with fossil fuels. (Solar panels already compete with fossil fuels in some situations in sunny locations.) He says he's "in the process of commercializing" the technology. He's realistic about how long it could take to work its way to market but says it's reasonable to think the technology could allow solar to provide a significant amount (14 percent) of the United States's electricity supply by 2030.

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