The Solar Energy Breakthrough Everyone Missed

When it comes to breaking our oil addiction, solar energy is often sited as a perfect renewable energy platform. There are problems with it from a cost perspective, but there is light at the end of the tunnel.

There is little doubt we have a looming energy problem in the world. While gas prices may seem high now, things look particularly grim over the next 60 years. Oil exploration is at an all time low while at the same time emerging economies such as China and India increase the demand on existing supplies. Throw in population growth of approximately another 3.5 billion people over the next 50 years and we are definitely staring down the wrong end of a energy shotgun. Of course, this doesn’t even begin to account for global warming issues.

To get off fossil fuels, most are pointing to renewable energy sources. These platforms run the gamut from wind turbines to tidal farms in the ocean to solar energy and beyond. Of these, solar is probably the best known, but most problematic. At least, that was the case till 2006.

Solar power is a wonderful thing. It is clean in all senses of the word. The power source, the sun, is free and should be around for a few billion years. In fact, the sun bathes the Earth with enough energy in one day to meet our world wide power needs for a year. That being said, solar has always been handicapped by one thing. We cannot harness the power of the sun.

Solar panel systems work by using sunlight to stimulate a chemical process in silicone cells. While a novel concept in the 1950s, the system never has been efficient. In the 60s, a solar cell converted about four percent of energy in sunlight to usable power. Today, most systems are about 12 percent efficient at best. This lack of efficiency has led to a serious problem. You need a large number of cells covering a large area to gather enough energy to power a home, town or city. Economically, the process just is not feasible when compared to most other energy platforms. As you might imagine, most solar energy research is devoted to figuring out ways to convert the sunlight more efficiently.

In 2006, a stunning breakthrough was made in solar cell efficiency. In joint research with the Department of Defense, Spectrolab, Inc., produce a solar cell that converts more than 40 percent of the sunlight into energy. If you don’t think we have an energy problem, consider the fact that Spectrolab is a subsidiary of Boeing. Boeing and the Department of Defense working on solar energy? Yes, we have a looming energy problem.

Regardless, the new solar cell approaches the conversion process from a new angle. The idea is to build a multilayer cell. Each layer of the cell is designed to catch the energy in one spectrum of the sunlight and let the others pass through. While it may sound simple, the process is very complex. Regardless, the defense industry…err Spectrolab…pulled it off.

With a 40.7 percent efficiency, we are talking about a three fold increase for these cells. This equates to a much smaller number of cells and corresponding space being needed for solar energy platforms. This, of course, lowers the cost of systems. Is it enough to make solar competitive without government subsidies? No one is sure yet, but it might be. More importantly, Spectrolab believes the efficiency can be improved more as further research is done on the cell.

With such a major breakthrough, it is to bad nobody noticed!
Rick Chapo is with - a directory of solar energy companies. Article Source:

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