NanoTech May Save The (Energy) Day

The Next Big Breakthrough?

As I posted earlier, I’m relatively pessimistic about our energy future.  Since we’re not going to drill-here-drill-now any time soon, I’m fully expecting to see brownouts and blackouts become a regularly scheduled feature of our working day in the proximate future.  I was close to betting some Euro-Dollars on it this morning.  Perhaps there’s ways to avoid this.

Researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have discovered and demonstrated a new method for overcoming two major hurdles facing solar energy. By developing a new antireflective coating that boosts the amount of sunlight captured by solar panels and allows those panels to absorb the entire solar spectrum from nearly any angle, the research team has moved academia and industry closer to realizing high-efficiency, cost-effective solar power.

Interesting tech.  We’ve been operating near the quantum level for over a decade with technology used in scientific instruments.  That is, we can capture and record nearly every photon of light that impinges upon their surfaces.  Your digital camera is an offshoot of this technology.

But “detecting” and “using” are two very different things.  For one thing, unless you point your light-absorbing surface directly at the light source, it’s efficiency goes way down.  Automating the system to track the light source adds significantly to the costs, and still reduces the energy-efficiency, since it costs energy to do that.

Lin’s discovery could antiquate these automated solar arrays, as his antireflective coating absorbs sunlight evenly and equally from all angles. This means that a stationary solar panel treated with the coating would absorb 96.21 percent of sunlight no matter the position of the sun in the sky. So along with significantly better absorption of sunlight, Lin’s discovery could also enable a new generation of stationary, more cost-efficient solar arrays.

Other issues, like the relative number of photons reflected, vs. the number absorbed (they’re the ones that do work!) play their part, too.  Lin’s antireflective coating goes a long way to minimizing that problem.

H/T to the Instapundit for the link.

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2 Comments on “NanoTech May Save The (Energy) Day”

  1. Paul Says:

    I do not at all understand your pessimism for our energy future. If anything, the availability of low-cost energy sources (subsidized or otherwise) has been the single most important factor to the lack of funding, innovation and development of alternative types of energy, and to our conservation of it. Solar, wind and water have, for all intents and purposes, been low-hanging fruit for generations now, and comparably little attention has been given them. “Too many technical problems” is the mantra I used to hear. That was so much bullshit. It always was will will continue to be whatever is cheapest and most profitable.

    I think that an oil crisis is a great – no, the greatest – motivator to quickly come to grips with more innovative, cost-effective energy solutions, especially those that can take advantage of the land and water available to this country. The polio vaccines and AIDS anti-retroviral drugs were born of crisis, as was the atomic bomb and for that matter, solutions to major Apollo Service Module malfunctions. It’s amazing that to this day, necessity is still the mother of invention.

    As painful in the short term as rising oil prices may be, the resulting interest in new sources of energy will feed an evolutionary explosion not seen since the Cambrian epoch.

    BBD

  2. joe Says:

    Hummm… My pessimism comes from the graph found here, which is also on a EIA website I tripsed across. It indicates that about 40×10**12 BTUs of energy produced by petroleum was used in the us in 2000, with about 80 total counting other sources. We use, apparently (and reasonably) about 60×10**12 (and 100, respectively) now, but that’s a guestimate. Unfortunately, neither OPEC, Venezuela nor Russia are selling us any more to make up the difference (although they are selling more to China – lotz) and we have, apparently decided not to produce more here. That was the political decision we seem to have made.

    Oh – did you see that the leading candidate to head up the EPA is Robert Kennedy Jr? He and his family are not exactly known to be friendly to the idea of alternate energy sources.

    Also, the energy distribution infrastructure on the east coast is a mess. We don’t have the national budget to maintain it now, much less upgrade it.

    In other words, I’m pessimistic not only because the “low hanging fruit” has not been plucked in two generations now (which is what one might reasonably expect), but because the politics has not been so bad for it since Three Mile Island.

    I’d love to be proved wrong!

    j


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