Silicon alternatives in high demand

February 22, 2009 7:51:26 PM PST
For the first time, more silicon is being used for solar energy than for computer chips. Competition for that natural resource has led both industries to scramble for alternatives.

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"Believe it or not," says Cyrus Wadia, a solar cell researcher at UC Berkeley, "on this one-square-inch chip, we have eight different solar cells."

98 percent of solar cells are made from silicon. But, that material has always been monopolized to make computer chips.

"And then, all of a sudden," Wadia says, "certain policies really pushed solar onto the market and they were very hungry for silicon."

Even so, what is the problem?

After all, silicon is everywhere in sand and in rocks like quartz. Well, there is another material even more abundant, the most abundant compound on the planet: fool's gold, otherwise known as iron pyrite.

It is cheaper and easier to make into solar panels.

That is what Wadia is doing in his lab. He starts with the liquid form and a piece of etched glass. He bastes the glass with the solution then spins it, to create a solar cell and nanotechnology magic.

This is just one of three alternative materials suggested by a UC Berkeley team comprised of Wadia, Professor Dan Kammen and Paul Alivisatos. The materials were first considered 30 years ago but discarded.

"We're seeing if we can apply new methods of nanotech to get past some of the technical hurdles they had back in the 70s," Wadia explains.

The new compounds are not as efficient as silicon, but Wadia says that is not the motivation.

"If you want to feed electricity by solar to 7 billion people, you need something that's orders of magnitude cheaper than what you have today."

So, iron pyrite, fool's gold, could become the new black gold.

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