With each broad new leap in technological advancement, it may seem as if the means of producing technological marvels depends on greater expenses and the use of esoteric, hard-to-acquire materials. As if to spite that belief, IBM’s research division has concocted a new solar cell whose layer responsible for collecting most of the light used in energy conversion is built from abundantly available materials: copper, zinc, sulfur, tin, and/or selenium. The kicker: not only are the materials easy to acquire and relatively inexpensive, but their use has resulted in IBM’s new solar cell achieving an efficiency of 9.6 percent, an impressive 40 percent increase than the value previously attained from using those materials.
“In a given hour, more energy from sunlight strikes the earth than the entire planet consumes in a year, but solar cells currently contribute less than 0.1 percent of electricity supply — primarily as a result of cost,” said David Mitzi, the head of the IBM Research team that developed the solar cell, via an IBM-issued press release. The mission, as Mitzi sees it, is to develop a solar technology able to compete with conventional electricity generation on a cost per watt basis, as well as being able to deploy at levels of hundreds of gigawatts or greater.
A Smarter Planet believes IBM has been successful in that mission thus far, noting that in comparison to IBM’s new solar cell, other cells performing at comparable efficiency levels have been too costly, and have contained elements not conducive to efficiency or production. IBM’s solar cell is also notable for its creation, which consisted of solution and nanoparticle-based approaches in contrast to the popular but expensive vacuum-based method.