BOSTON - Today is the last day I'll be posting information I picked up last week at the EmTech@MIT conference on emerging technologies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus in Cambridge, Mass. This comes from one of the last sessions, a demonstration of some experimental new solar technology materials by Harry Atwater, Howard Hughes Professor and Professor of Applied Physics and Materials Science at the California Institute of Technology. Anyone who is interested in solar technology but who can't imagine sticking massive solar panels on your roof for aesthetic reasons will especially appreciate this blog.
That's because Atwater's focus, among other things, is on how to endow thin film solar technology with more efficiency and also build on one of its inherent strengths, flexibility.
The economic reasons why solar isn't yet a terawatt-scale energy source are pretty well understood at this point. Just four to five years ago, the technology cost upwards of $30 per watt per module. Now that number is approaching $1 per watt per module, through advances by companies like First Solar and Oerlikon. The challenge now, Atwater suggests, is to focus on reducing stalled system costs. For the module, that means getting the price down to closer to 50 cents per watt and looking at ways to get solar into things much more cheaply.
Enter the research being championed by Atwater and his colleagues, which could result in solar being more part of the infrastructure of things. Envision of solar materials being poured onto your roof as a replacement for traditional shingles, or, if you love your Spanish tiles, applied to fit the contours.
There is one very big drawback to thin-film solar right now, efficiency, according to Atwater. And one of the keys to addressing this is plasmonics, using light to help improve the absorption of the solar material while allowing for the thickness to be reduced. That means less silicon needs to be used in the cells, which means costs in theory will be reduced. I'll definitely be keeping an eye on this project, which is described in more detail in this article from the Voice of America Web site.