Study Finds Less Costly Materials for Solar Panels

Photo: Cyrus Wadia is the lead author of a recent study identifying cost-effective materials that could be used to create solar cells-making the technology more widely available.
Lara Brucker/Photo
Cyrus Wadia is the lead author of a recent study identifying cost-effective materials that could be used to create solar cells-making the technology more widely available.

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Up until now, the cost of solar panels has made them impractical for many Americans. However, with the release of a study from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, soon this may no longer be the case.

The study found a number of cost-effective, naturally abundant materials that are not currently being used in solar energy research. These materials could be the key to cheaper solar cells and widespread use of solar energy, researchers in the study say.

The study's lead author, Cyrus Wadia, teamed up with Daniel Kammen, UC Berkeley professor and director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory, and Paul Alivisatos, interim director of the lab, to conduct the research.

Wadia, a postdoctoral researcher at the lab, said he and his co-authors examined 23 different materials that could potentially be used in a solar power cell.

Of those 23, 12 materials exist in amounts abundant enough to meet or exceed the entire world's annual energy needs.

Nine were significantly more cost-effective than the crystalline silicon often used in solar cells today.

"The purpose of this report is to get people to look at these materials more seriously," Wadia said.

Iron sulfide and copper sulfide were clear winners in terms of cost and abundance, according to the report.

Current solar technology costs about $7 to $8 per watt, Wadia said. He said the new materials could potentially cut costs by "two orders of magnitude."

Solar enthusiasts, such as Materials Science and Engineering professor Ramamoorthy Ramesh, predict that solar power is the clear solution to many major environmental concerns.

Currently, solar power comprises about .006 percent of the energy market, Ramesh said. Now, solar technology uses crystalline silicon, which is both expensive and difficult to acquire.

Proponents of solar power said that more materials are needed if solar power is to replace other forms of energy.

"If you don't have enough materials, you can't do this on a scale that will save humanity," said Ramesh, who is doing experimental work with these materials.

Wadia said his research was done mostly with computer modeling rather than building and testing actual panels.

He said he hopes his study's findings will generate enthusiasm from laboratories across the country to develop and test prototypes.

"This could be a five, ten or even twenty-year effort to get something like this on the market," he said.

Professor Richard Muller, who teaches the popular "Physics for Future Presidents" course on campus, said people must be patient in looking for long-term energy solutions.

"The problem with the political process is that we're always looking one day, one month ahead, so we don't invest in long-term strategies," he said.

Tags: SOLAR POWER


Contact Leah Greenbaum at [email protected]



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