#Solar cell technology is fast-moving. Experts at the National Renewable #Energy Laboratory are utilizing methods which are five decades old to bring down the excessive price of super-efficient #solar cells. Why? Simply put, so they can be used by people like you here on Earth.
The team at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory believes they can get the costly solar panels (which adorned the #Mars rovers 15 years ago) down to an affordable enough price that you will start seeing them on rooftops throughout your city. To offer a visual image, the rovers that journeyed to Mars more than a decade ago relied on solar panels roughly the size of a small dining room table or kitchen table. These solar panels were able to convert approximately 27 percent of sunlight into electricity.
#Solar Cell Cost Challenge
Could these solar panels be used on Earth? Well, yes, but the cost would be galactic – pun intended.
Creating a solar cell for property owners means paying close attention to both cost and efficiency. If prices are too high because materials are too pricey, customers will potentially include big names like NASA, but that might be about it. Additionally, if the prices drop because efficiency isn’t as adequate, a bigger area will be needed for the solar panels. This would mean the market would have limitations to very specific roofs. Moreover, bigger areas will end up causing other issues with cost, for instance, as well as transportation and installation costs.
Solar Technology Used On Mars
There is a solution to this conundrum, and as you might have guessed, it entails looking to Mars. Photovoltaic panels were used on the rovers on Mars and the solar cell technology is remarkable. Back in 2003, the solar cell technology utilized for the rovers was mainly based on gallium and indium. If you are familiar with the periodic table of elements, these can be found on the third and fifth columns – hence the name of the solar cell, III-V.
The #III-V solar panels found on the rovers in 2003 had a great conversion efficiency, as they could convert 27 percent of sunlight into electricity – in other words, this means a conversion efficiency of 27 percent. The problem is they cost a great deal of money, making them out of the question for many because of being unaffordable. President Obama attempted to bring the price of utility scale photovoltaic technology down to just $1.00 for each watt. But the solar panels on the rovers cost somewhere between $100 and $300 per watt. The difference is huge.
Note – the goal of $1.00 for each watt was met in 2017.
Can Solar Drop Even Lower?
The team at #NREL was able to save time and money by skipping the conventional process for creating III-V solar cells. They turned to a method previously used until the 1960s, known as hydride vapor-phase epitaxy. People put an end to using hydride vapor-phase epitaxy, or #HPVE, because it did not do a good enough job of formulating multifaceted structures with numerous layers, and the process was exhausting. However, leave it to the team at NREL to come up with a way to redesign HPVE – they figured out a way to make it use two chambers. This ended up reducing the time to make a III-V solar cell, so it now only takes two minutes instead of two hours for one chamber.
The method has been named D-HPVE. Senior scientist at NREL, #Aaron Ptak, mentioned that when they began using the program, they only anticipated making inexpensive solar cells that would work. But the method completely exceeded expectations and the team at NREL has organized D-HPVE in such a way that it is able to make a solar cell with a conversion efficiency of more than 25 percent.
Can solar go even lower? The short answer is, yes, it can. The III-V solar cell, mass-produced by NREL, could go down to less than a dollar. It could even go as low as .20 cents.
A Rooftop Solar Expansion
Better efficiency means less weight and a smaller area, which could expand the rooftop solar market. Unfortunately, we aren’t quite there yet. There are still numerous steps to take prior to high efficiency III-V solar cells coming out at such low rates. In the meantime, however, even if the costs are dropped to under $100, the range would open up more specialty applications on Earth.
One major potential customer that is pursuing transportable systems to be used in the field is the United States Department of Defense. Can you think of other potential customers? There are so many possibilities when it comes to solar – stay tuned for other galactic discoveries in the world of solar.