03 July 2001
Relief in sight?
Solar cells will soon be able to convert more than 40% of available sunlight into usable electric power, according to researchers with a joint venture between a Hughes Electronics subsidiary and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. They have already crossed the 32% mark using the new technology, which relies on gallium compounds.
"We have taken the basic cell design concept," said Dr. David Lillington, "and made it cost-effective for terrestrial applications when it is combined with a concentrator system. By doubling the power-generating efficiency of the cell, the size of the solar ray collection system can be reduced in half, thereby reducing the overall cost of the infrastructure."
The new technology is adapted from solar cell research done for NASA and improves on traditional silicon solar cells by using inexpensive optics that provide concentration.
"Multijunction solar cells have made a major impact on the cost-effectiveness and revenue-generating capabilities of high-power space satellites over the last five years, and we expect them to have a similar impact on the $1 billion terrestrial photovoltaics industry," Lillington said.
Solar power isn't the only alternative technology garnering attention. Microsoft chief executive officer Bill Gates has invested in fuel cell companies and gas-powered microturbines. Though both types of systems are now costly, that will probably change as the technology advances. Analyst estimates of the size of the fuel cell market range up to more than $10 billion by 2010.