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Energy Tech's Quantum Leap

Tomorrow's utility technology may be revolutionized at the molecular level.
Fortnightly Magazine - November 1 2003

can be processed like a liquid."

The concepts and techniques vary from company to company, but essentially the idea is to produce photo-reactive materials-made of either organic or inorganic elements-that can be essentially "painted" onto a substrate. This should make it possible to produce long sheets of PV material in a roll-to-roll manufacturing process, running at high speeds in a normal atmosphere. This would not only boost the efficiency of production, but it would also dramatically reduce the cost of building PV-manufacturing factories-another barrier to today's PV technology.

Finally, these new PV materials are expected to be more flexible and durable than the rigid, breakable glass substrates of today's PV cells. This and other design factors might open up a whole new world for PV applications-from residential roofing systems to military uniforms.

These ideas might seem like the stuff of science fiction, but major companies expect to see real profit flowing from them in the not-too-distant future. For example:

  • In late 2002, Matsushita Electric Works and Nanosys signed a contract to jointly develop building materials with integrated nano-PV cells. Matsushita-parent company of Panasonic-expects to begin selling such products in 2007.
  • Both Nanosys and Konarka have formed relationships with defense contractor SAIC to develop military and other applications for their PV technologies. Moreover, this summer the U.S. Army provided funding support for Konarka's development of flexible, field-ready PV systems-possibly even uniforms with PV nanofibers woven into the fabric.
  • In late September 2003, Electricité de France signed a cooperation agreement with Konarka to develop and launch the company's PV products "in a variety of form factors for commercial, industrial, government and consumer applications."

These and other developments suggest that within a few years, mass-production facilities will begin spinning out miles and miles of inexpensive PV materials. If that happens, PV could assume a much bigger role in the power industry-possibly even becoming a viable option for distributed generation applications.

Getting to that point, however, requires companies to finish commercializing their technology. Demonstrating the durability of a PV system, for example, is a key step. Researchers in Europe have tested the technology on which Konarka's products are based, and they found it should deliver at least a 10-year service life in the field. Konarka is testing its own application of the technology, and so far the results are equally promising.

"The ultimate test is to put it up on the roof and let Mother Nature do her thing," Gaudiana says. "We haven't done that yet, but we are encouraged by the results so far."

Fuel Cell Future

Fuel cells are among the most promising technologies for the future of power generation. Today, however, fuel cells suffer from high capital costs, high operating costs and constraints on fuel supply and storage.

Nanotechnology researchers, however, are developing solutions to these nagging problems. Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology, for example, are focused on the fuel end of the fuel-cell challenge.

Scientists have long known that oxides of certain rare-earth elements (cerium, terbium and praseodymium, to be precise) can produce hydrogen from water vapor and methane in