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  • Solar energy use is maturing, with bumps and bright spots

Photonics Spectra
Sep 2011
Karen A. Newman

Another summer has just about burned itself out here in our corner of the world, and our active pursuit of sunshine has turned passive as the days begin to shorten and temperatures cool. But it seems that around the world, sunshine – in the form of solar power – is still a hot topic.

Daily headlines bring a mixture of optimistic growth projections, interesting research and reports of losses due in part to cost issues and pricing pressure. In an article about the solar energy industry from April 2010, The Economist likened solar power to “an unlovely adolescent” stuck between the promise of its youth and the achievement of its full potential. And it appears that its teen angst may be a bit prolonged.

On the bright side, a press release about producing copper indium gallium selenide solar devices by ink-jet printing came our way recently, outlining a good example of researchers working to take cost out of the solar energy industry. In this case, cost savings come from reducing waste by 90 percent in the production of solar cells, according to engineers at Oregon State University in Corvallis. They report that a layer of chalcopyrite 1 or 2 μm thick can capture the energy from photons about as efficiently as a 50-μm-thick layer made with silicon. You can find the press release at:

Two items in this issue further enrich our understanding of the current global interest in solar energy.

In FastTrack, features editor Lynn Savage asks, “Australia is a land rich with coal and natural gas – so why is it a boom time for solar energy on the island continent?” The country’s largest solar thermal research facility was recently established in New South Wales by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, which investigates and develops traditional and alternative energy resources of all types. If the demonstration site were connected to the grid, the setup could generate enough electricity to power more than 200 homes. For now, it is open to researchers from all over to develop and test new concentrated solar power technologies. Read the full piece, “Coal-Rich Australia Warms to Solar Power,” on page 32.

In GreenLight, contributing editor Marie Freebody brings to light a new method for producing flexible solar cells that is cheaper and simpler than producing conventional silicon types. The method shows how ultracheap solar energy panels can be made on a large scale for domestic and industrial use, according to Dr. Andrew Parnell of the University of Sheffield. See her report beginning on page 41.

Solar will pick up a little speed down under when 42 teams from Australia and 20 other countries compete in next month’s World Solar Challenge 2011, the 3000-km race from Darwin to Adelaide that tests the latest technologies for solar electric cars. With some $25 million invested in the competing vehicles, and millions more going into research, organizers hope that combining sport with science will inspire another generation of thinkers – and, likely, more solar supporters.

I hope you enjoy the issue.

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