Carbon Could Be Solar Power Breakthrough

Carbon and solar energy are two of the most plentiful resources on Earth, and researchers at Northwestern University say they have found a way to use one to harvest the other. Existing methods for harvesting solar energy from photovoltaic cells involve an indium tin oxide-based conductor technology. This material is mechanically brittle, and dependent on indium, a relatively rare mineral. As demand for solar energy technology increases, a reliance on indium could drive up the cost of solar panels.

The solution, according to Northwestern chemistry, materials science and engineering professors Mark C. Hersam and Tobin J. Marks, is a new solar cell material made of single-walled carbon nanotubes: tiny, hollow cylinders of carbon just one nanometer in diameter. “If solar technology really becomes widespread, as everyone hopes it will, we will likely have a crisis in the supply of indium,” Hersam said. “There’s a great desire to identify materials – especially earth-abundant elements like carbon – that can take indium’s place in solar technology.”

solar panels

image via Shutterstock

In addition to carbon’s abundance, the material is also lighter, and mechanically flexible. This could allow solar cells to be integrated into fabrics and clothing, leading to many new applications for portable energy supplies on everything from clothing, backpacks or purses to military equipment. “With this mechanically flexible technology, it’s much easier to imagine integrating solar technology into everyday life, rather than carrying around a large, inflexible solar cell,” Hersam said.

The research was featured on the cover of the October issue of Advanced Energy Materials, a new journal that specializes in science about materials used in energy applications.

Lauren Craig is a writer and consultant living in Seattle, WA. She holds an M.S. in International Development from Tulane University, and is co-founder of Sustainable Systems Integrators, LLC., an employee-owned solar energy design and installation firm in New Orleans, LA. She is also certified in PV design and installation by the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP).


  • Reply October 13, 2011

    Ryan Brown

    I’m loving the progress in this respect.

  • Reply October 15, 2011


    Solar energy for HEAT?u00a0 Glue a mile of black hoses to au00a0platform of TIN on a HUGE BARN!u00a0u00a0 Put a temperature guage on it.u00a0 As the temperature rises from solar rays, empty the “hoses” into an under-ground cistern.u00a0 Fill the hoses up again!u00a0 The tin roofs will do double duty!u00a0u00a0 Keep the cows dry and supply the farm with hot water, HEAT and generate POWER!u00a0u00a0 I grew up on a farm!u00a0 Itu00a0was TRIED and it WORKS!u00a0u00a0 Justu00a0in a smaller capacity!u00a0 Almost ALL of Solyndras/our money was spent on indecent things that had NOTHING to do with “energy action”!u00a0 THAT was an after-thought!

  • Reply October 18, 2011

    John Smith

    My concern is the nanotubes effect on the environment.u00a0 Its a totally new material, and we don’t know what effect carbon in that form could have on people.u00a0u00a0 Eventually if this ever becomes ubiquitous, then old solar panels will get thrown away, reprocessed, etc…and humans will invariably be exposed to nanotube carbons.

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