Tiny Solar Cells Could Pay Big Dividends in Cost, Energy Efficiency

Sandia researcher Greg Nielson with "glitter-sized" solar cells. (Photo by Randy Montoya)

The big news out of Sandia National Laboratories today is micro solar cells — or “glitter-sized” as Sandia is calling them — that could halve the cost of solar panels while nearly doubling their efficiency.

Engineers have been working on Microsystems-Enabled Photovoltaics (MEPV) for some time, but the technology may have reached a tipping point, according to Sandia MEPV team leader, Greg Nielson.

“As the cells have matured and gotten to the point where we’re getting good, consistent performance, we’re ready to jump into making systems,” says Nielson. “We’ve got these cells; now what are we going to do with them?”

The answer: get them out of the lab and put them to work in the real world, thanks to an award by the Federal Laboratory Consortium. The technology transfer award allows Sandia to partner with private companies in five states, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colorado, and researchers at the University of South Florida. The team will adapt microfabrication technologies (already used in the semiconductor industry) to produce a new generation of crystalline silicon solar cells that could be as thin as 2-microns.

Scanning Electron Microscope image of a single MEPV solar cell.

The diminutive cells are suspended in an ink-like solution and then printed onto an ultra-thin and low-cost substrate. The top layer of this “sandwich” is comprised of microlenses to focus the sun’s rays directly onto each solar cell.

Solar power has been taking a beating lately — unfairly, and politically motived, say supporters of renewable energy — because of the failure of the government-supported Solyndra company. But, as one solar-backer said, “for every failure there are dozens of new success stories that never get mentioned.”

Today’s announcement by Sandia is probably just the kind of story he had in mind.

There’s an excellent video illustrating the manufacturing process here. You can learn more about the technical details of MEPV development here and here.

Why Are People Excited About Solar Power? One Picture Says it All.

Photo of the Sun, with a scaled photo of the Earth above it (© 2011 Osha Gray Davidson)

Since we have a current satellite HD photo of the Sun on this page every day (courtesy of NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory), we wanted to put the features seen on the Sun in perspective. See that tiny blue dot above the Sun? That’s our home, superimposed in true scale on the image of the sun.

It’s easy to see how the sun has such a tremendous influence on the Earth, and why solar power has so much promise.

Sunscape | The Beauty of Our Star

Sunscape 15

Our Star: The Sun

Like many others who lived through the Carl Sagin Cosmos Era, I’m mesmerized by images of distant galaxies, nebulae, and supernovae. With billion and billions of cosmic objects to explore, it’s easy to overlook the cosmic grandeur in our own neighborhood, the Sun. (The term “neighborhood” is used in its astronomical sense, given that the Sun is nearly 93 million miles from Earth.)

Yet, Sunscapes are beautiful and richly diverse, largely because the gases that make up the Sun have been superheated to the point that they are sensitive to magnetism. The patterns we see on the surface — and deep into the interior — are those unseen magnetic fields made visible by the hot gases. It’s a bit like “seeing” the wind by watching the patterns of movement in a wheat field as wind blows across the land.

The Sunscape above was captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), a satellite launched in 2010 for a five-year mission studying the Sun. The SDO uses imaging devices so sensitive that the resulting data stream provides as much detail as a high-def screen. (You can read more about the SDO, here.)

The images provide scientists an unprecedented amount of data to help understand solar activity. These images also allow us to see the powerful beauty present in the Sun in ways we’ve never been able to — before the SDO.

The detailed image above was taken from the SDO daily photograph found in our widget at the top, right-hand corner of the page. To explore the full image, simply right-click on the widget photo, and choose “View image” from the drop-down menu.

Here’s a fascinating (and beautiful) video from NASA showing how the SDO works: