Solar Power Meets Nanotechnology at Caltech

Cal-Tech and BP Solar will collaborate on a project to deploy nanotechnology to provide cheaper and more efficient solar energy. From a joint press release:

For an initial five-year period, researchers at Caltech and BP will explore a method of growing silicon by creating arrays of nanorods rather than by casting ingots and cutting wafers, which is the current conventional way of producing silicon for solar cells. Nanorods are small cylinders of silicon that can be 100 times smaller than a human hair and would be tightly packed in an array like bristles in a brush.

A solar cell made up of an array of nanorods will be able to efficiently absorb light along the length of the rods while also collecting the electricity generated by sunlight more efficiently than a conventional solar cell.

The Caltech solar nanorod program will be directed by Nate Lewis, the George L. Argyros Professor and professor of chemistry, and Harry Atwater, the Howard Hughes Professor and professor of applied physics and materials science. In addition, eight postdoctoral researchers and graduate students will work on the project.

“Nanotechnology can offer new and unique ways to make solar-cell materials that are cheaper yet could perform nearly as well as conventional materials,” says Lewis, an expert in surface chemistry and photochemistry.

Lewis’s group will investigate uses of nanotechnology to create designer solar-cell materials, from nanorods to nanowires, in order to change the conventional paradigm for solar-cell materials.

“Using nanorods as the active elements opens up very new approaches to design and low-cost fabrication of high-performance solar cells,” adds Atwater, an expert in electronic and optoelectronic materials and devices.

nanorod.jpgI’ve been joking with friends lately that the solutions to global warming are going to come from nanotechnology. But it looks like I might’ve been right!

Just on an intuitive level, look at it this way. All energy systems operate inefficiently to some degree. Some of that inefficiency translates into pollution. Inefficiency also stands in the way of conservation.

Nanotechnology, in particular molecular manufacturing, has the potential to produce products at a minuscule fraction of the energy required to make those products today. (Look at this video for a sense of what the molecular manufacturing gurus think is coming in the next 20 years or so.) Or, assuming we continue to rely on fossil fuels, nanotechnology could be used to filter out greenhouse gases at power plants, trapping them for disposal. It can also be used to greatly reduce the inefficiency of transferring energy from its natural source into its end use — by changing, say, the molecular structure of what we use to transmit energy.

Some potential exists, perhaps, for nanotechnology to be applied directly to reducing the existing, dangerously high levels of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere. Many scientists believe we are already “past the point of no return” to avoid the dramatic effects of global warming — that in fact we are already seeing them.

If so, it won’t be enough to cut future emissions, even at dramatic levels, although it is no less vital that we do so. The logical consequences of such a view is that we need to focus more attention on getting carbon dioxide that is in the air now, stripped out of the air. Nanotechnology would surely play a role in this admittedly outlandish idea, because of the large amounts of energy required. But wouldn’t it be just too elegant if the Caltech/BP research project resulted in an applicable solar solution to the energy needs of an air-stripping project?

I don’t want to sound like P.T. Barnum or Jimmy Swaggert about all this. Nanotechnology sounds many alarm bells, even among its advocates. For all its potential to shift our economy away from its reliance on high-energy manufacturing, this magic genie poses a host of other environmental, economic and global security threats. But it often surprises me how low on the news media’s radar screen the march of nanotechnology appears.

For example, the story at the start of this post about Caltech, a major local university, and BP, the successor-by-acquisition to LA’s own Arco? Big news here, here, here, and here. But in Caltech’s hometown media? This story in the LA Times, buried on the bottom of page 2 of the Business section. Nothing in the Daily News. Nothing in the Pasadena Star News.  Nothing in the San Diego Union Tribune, in the city where the announcement was made.  From what I can tell, both Caltech and BP Solar put out a news release on this yesterday, and paid PR Newswire to distribute it. The editors saw it and said “ehh.”

But there was lots and lots of room for this. Nothing like Hooters, puppies and an outbreak of prudish hypocrisy to distract our media from what we used to call news. Maybe Caltech should talk to Hooters about setting up a foundation for global warming research.

(I’ll run a pilot program right here. I’ll tag this post “Hooters” (along with the more appropriate tags) and see how many extra hits I get.)

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