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Rock doc: New technology for solar panels

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August 07, 2013 |

I recently pulled some weeds in my yard. I can only do a little bit at a time, having to take it slow due to arthritic knees. But one thing about pulling weeds in August stands out even when taken in small doses: it’s hot work.
With the sun beating down on us, warming the whole nation, it’s easy to wonder if solar power will some day replace fossil fuels as our mainstay energy resource. That could be a wonderful development from several perspectives: it could make the U.S. more energy independent and it could reduce the amount of carbon dioxide we produce each day.
Some efforts to harness the sun depend on capturing energy to do things like warm up cold water. A few houses are designed to collect energy from the sun during the winter to “passively” warm rooms with southern exposures. Those are valuable efforts, but to my mind they pale in significance to work aimed at converting the energy of sunlight into electricity.
Electricity is a wonderful form of energy. We can do almost anything with it, ranging from cooling our houses in the summer via air conditioning to heating them in the winter. If we could engineer an economical and environmentally friendly way to convert sunlight into electricity, we might find ourselves on Easy Street with respect to the economic and political costs of our national power needs.
I once owned a solar panel I bolted to the top of my humble 1972 travel trailer. I about doubled the value of my investment in the trailer when I added that panel to it. I used the panel to power a single high-efficiency light bulb in the trailer that allowed me to read after dark.
Recently there’s been some good news about a new kind of solar panel that might really make a difference to the economics and the environmental impact of the devices. The news comes from Oregon State University. Using ethylene glycol, the active ingredient in anti-freeze, engineers have made progress researching what’s called a continuous flow process to making “thin-film” solar cells. With a continuous flow approach, things look good in terms of being able to scale up the process to industrial production at low cost per unit produced. Perhaps best of all, the panels would be based on a mixture of copper, zinc, tin and sulfur. These are all common and cheap elements compared to those used in most solar panels today.
“We need technologies that use abundant, inexpensive materials, preferably ones that can be mined in the U.S. This process offers that,” said Prof. Greg Herman of OSU in a press release.
A great deal about the energy landscape would be changed if we find a way to harness the sun in economically and environmentally attractive ways. Here’s wishing the best to researchers across the country who are working to crack the solar nut.
Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.

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