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The quest for a better solar cell

Maybe this will be a big step forward.

A research team led by [UT chemistry professor Xiaoyang] Zhu, who refers to his Center for Materials Chemistry as the XYZ Lab, has shown that it’s possible to convert much more of the sun’s energy to electricity than conventional solar cells are able to generate. The conventional cells, which are made of silicon, turn no more than about 20 percent of the energy into juice, and their maximum theoretical efficiency is only 31 percent because of technical limitations.

By using a compound called lead selenide in the form of quantum dots, also called semiconductor nanocrystals, and by routing electrons stirred up by the sunlight from the lead selenide to another compound called titanium dioxide, the researchers showed that it’s theoretically possible to harvest 66 percent of the energy.

To put it another way, the XYZ group has figured out some of the ABCs of a better solar cell. Any commercial application is years in the future because considerably more scientific and engineering work needs to be done.

The team’s findings, published recently in the scholarly journal Science, are part of a growing body of research aimed at improving the efficiency — and reducing the cost — of solar cells. The goal is to make solar energy a viable alternative to fossil fuels that contribute to global warming and to dependence on supplies in politically volatile parts of the world.

“I’m hoping by the time I retire, we have solar cells like this on the roof,” said Zhu, 46. “That would be my dream.”

And quite a nice dream that is, too. I’m not scientifically literate enough to understand all the details of this, but the basic idea of getting more bang from solar cells by reducing the amount of energy lost to heat is simple enough. I’m sure there will be more breakthroughs like this as additional research is done, and I’m sure we’ll need all of them to push forward a more widespread adoption of solar power. Best of all, this particular finding was pretty cheap:

Zhu, who received $490,000 in funding from the U.S. Department of Energy for the project, recently received an additional $630,000 to continue the research.

For a bit more than a million bucks we got a potentially revolutionary discovery. Whatever happens from here, that’s a pretty good return on the investment. Imagine what we could accomplish if we were serious about investing in our own future instead of playing stupid budget tricks appease the deficit peacocks. Yes, I’m a bit grumpy about this.

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