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Power Hardware Science Technology

Cheap Solar Panels Made With An Ion Cannon 395

Posted by Soulskill
from the fresh-from-the-daystrom-institute dept.
MrSeb writes "Twin Creeks, a solar power startup that emerged from hiding today, has developed a way of creating photovoltaic cells that are half the price of today's cheapest cells, and thus within reach of challenging the fossil fuel hegemony. As it stands, almost every solar panel is made by slicing a 200-micrometer-thick (0.2mm) wafer from a block of crystalline silicon. You then add some electrodes, cover it in protective glass, and leave it in a sunny area to generate electricity through the photovoltaic effect. There are two problems with this approach: Much in the same way that sawdust is produced when you slice wood, almost half of the silicon block is wasted when it's cut into 200-micrometer slices; and second, the panels would still function just as well if they were thinner than 200 micrometers, but silicon is brittle and prone to cracking if it's too thin. Using a hydrogen ion particle accelerator, Twin Creeks has managed to create very thin (20-micrometer), flexible photovoltaic cells that can be produced for just 40 cents per watt; around half the cost of conventional solar cells, and a price point that encroaches on standard, mostly-hydrocarbon-derived grid power."
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Cheap Solar Panels Made With An Ion Cannon

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  • Ion Cannon (Score:5, Funny)

    by necro81 (917438) on Tuesday March 13, 2012 @03:08PM (#39342273) Journal
    And here I thought ion cannons were only useful for disabling Star Destroyers [youtube.com]. Now we can use them to disable the evil Oil Empire!
  • Wake me when you have the problem of energy storage solved. #kthxbai

    • by rolfwind (528248) on Tuesday March 13, 2012 @03:16PM (#39342409)

      Even with the losses, I always though hydrogen would be the way to go for excess energy stored up through the day. Of course, on a large scale, I wouldn't be using photovoltaics but perhaps some type of concentrator and steam electrolysis. Molten salt may also be a way to go at that level.

      On a small level, how problematic would hydrogen be to store if used for things like heating a house? I realize it wouldn't power cars at its density level (natural gas already takes up too much space).

      Another solution may be storing the energy as compressed air.

      • by dgp (11045)

        Agreed. Electrolysis of water to release hydrogen is easy to perform and well understood. Getting electricity back out with a fuel cell is a bit harder.

        • by mosb1000 (710161) <mosb1000@mac.com> on Tuesday March 13, 2012 @03:26PM (#39342545)

          You can burn the hydrogen in a combined cycle plant and get 70% efficiency. Fuel cells are overrated.

      • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday March 13, 2012 @03:20PM (#39342469)

        Flywheels, the most efficient means of energy storage we have. Large ones, in sealed units, buried underground like a septic tank, that remain there 50 years or so, and can power your house for week or two in case of outages.

        Several companies are working on exactly this.

        • by rolfwind (528248)

          Do they use magnets to get the energy back out of flywheels these days somehow or mechanical linkages?

          • by Artraze (600366)

            I might be misunderstanding your question, but:

            Normally a flywheel is spun by a motor, which can also be used as a generator. So you (super basically!) just wire the flywheel motor into your circuit and when you have excess power it accelerates and when you have excess draw it decelerates.

          • by FishTankX (1539069) on Tuesday March 13, 2012 @05:39PM (#39344577)

            As far as I know the energy input and retrieval is still entirely mechanical, but the major advancements in flywheels have been magnetic bearings, and very high vacuums, which dramatically reduce friction losses.

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by Fallingwater (1465567)

          I was thinking flywheels too. They can't easily be adapted to automotive use, but if you can dedicate a whole room to a flywheel system size and weight are no longer a concern. However, they'd have to be more underground than the average basement, so if a flywheel breaks apart the resulting destruction doesn't bring the whole building down. Tons of potential kinetic energy stored in such a small area makes for a spectacular show if released all at once.

          • by LanMan04 (790429)

            Position them vertically, and you won't have to worry about destroying your basement when it fails.

            I must be missing something here, that solution is just too simple... ;)

            • by necro81 (917438) on Tuesday March 13, 2012 @03:59PM (#39343069) Journal
              The energy stored in a flywheel is I * omega ^ 2. With the materials we have available now and the size you want to allocate to such a thing, manufacturers have found it works best to have a flywheel with a modest moment of inertia and crank the rotational rate way up high (100,000 rpm for starters). To keep the flywheel from spontaneously shattering, high speed flywheels are mostly made from carbon fiber. And with the flywheel spinning so fast, the only way to keep them from losing energy to friction is to have them spin in a vacuum on magnetic bearings. Then you add in a high efficiency motor/generator, with some serious power electronics to commute the phases at ~kW power levels. These are all proven technologies (see Beacon Power [beaconpower.com]), but compared to a bank of lead acid batteries, it isn't an affordable solution for a home.
              • by aaarrrgggh (9205)

                I was talking to a manufacturer recently, and they indicated about a 20-25% premium relative to SLAB's in terms of first cost. For deep-discharge applications, you would break even in 3 years when you need to replace the batteries.

          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by Knuckles (8964)

            Obviously this won't power a car on its own anytime soon, but I thought you might find it interesting anyway: http://www.williamshybridpower.com/ [williamshybridpower.com]
            Williams Hybrid Power is a spin-off of the Williams F1 race team that competes in Formula One. They developed this flywheel storage for use in their F1 race car, but IIRC under the particular restrictions of Formula 1 battery systems proved more competitive. It's been used to provide power for a "boost button" in Porsche high-performance cars though, and they are t

        • by jklovanc (1603149) on Tuesday March 13, 2012 @04:07PM (#39343187)

          Costs are still a bit high for flywheels. Here is a quote from this [wikipedia.org] article; "Costs of a fully installed flywheel UPS are about $330 per 15 seconds at one kilowatt." So to supply 1kW for a week it would cost 330*4*60*24*7= $13.3m.
          Flywheels are great for instant power to level output but not yet viable for long term storage. A flywheel to give power overnight would even be $800k.

      • by adavies42 (746183)

        yes, ideally bonded to medium-length chains of carbon atoms for stability, ease of transport, etc.

      • by gorzek (647352)

        Pumping water uphill is a surprisingly effective energy storage technique. This isn't practical for most people's houses, but on a large scale it works very well.

    • by tmosley (996283)
      Eh? Deep cycle batteries work just fine for my solar set-up.
    • Hydrocarbons created by energy from renewables or thorium LFTR power, using atmospheric CO2 (or coal) and water.

      You're welcome.

    • by jasno (124830)

      Well, here in California we pump water uphill at night and let it go down during the day.

  • by Compaqt (1758360) on Tuesday March 13, 2012 @03:08PM (#39342287) Homepage

    Will a Canon Ion [wikipedia.org] also work?

  • Cost of machinery (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday March 13, 2012 @03:08PM (#39342293)

    What about the cost of the ion accelerator itself? Is it cheap enough to make this manufacturing method scaleable?

    • by cyfer2000 (548592)
      Ion implantation has been used by semiconductor industry for years. It's initial purchase cost is high, very high.
  • by Rossman (593924) on Tuesday March 13, 2012 @03:09PM (#39342305) Homepage

    Man how many times have we seen these stories already - "cheap solar power discovery, will make solar pv affordable" but then years later nothing has changed.

    It would be great if some of these things actually got productizd, I would set up solar pv all over my property if it was just a bit more cost effective...

    • by Baloroth (2370816) on Tuesday March 13, 2012 @03:15PM (#39342385)

      Because the story comes out when the technology is still in fairly early stages of development, and then it takes 5-10 years from that point for people to work out the engineering difficulties to actually bring it to full-scale production (or it turns out not to be practical).

      Also, oblig xkcd [xkcd.com].

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by sycodon (149926)

        Well, to use the common argument against drilling, if it will take more than just a few years to see the benefit, then why even bother with it?

      • by BetterSense (1398915) on Tuesday March 13, 2012 @03:56PM (#39343025)
        Actually, photovoltaic cells have a fundamental efficiency limit, and we are already close (well within an order of magnitude) of that already.

        Also, it's more than that. Mostly, solar energy is not concentrated. People are just spoiled by semiconductor integrated circuits. Photovoltaics have been steadily improving, but the fact is solar power is not very dense...actual sunlight is not a concentrated source of energy. There's only so many watts per square meter that fall, and the sun doesn't always shine. The only way to get real gains is to set out more solar panels. So there is going to be no "breakthrough" like there sometimes is with other technologies that are enabled by integrated circuits; even if somebody invents the absolute perfect solar cell that sucks up every uJ of energy that hits it.

        People set their expectations based on technologies that are enabled by integrated circuits, but fail to realize that more fundamental technologies can't be doubled in speed or cut to 1/4 the cost just be printing more of them on the same amount of silicon.
        • by mattiaza (2567891) on Tuesday March 13, 2012 @04:36PM (#39343617)
          We are very close to the fundamental efficiency limit of *power per square meter*. Which is a valid, but secondary concern. If solar cells are cheap enough, there is plenty of space for them in deserts, suburban roofs, and perhaps even parking lots! A manhattan skyscraper won't be able to power itself, but a 30km*30km plot of land in Nevada receives enough sunlight over 24 hours to power the entire U.S. with electricity. The important metrics for any energy source are: * cost per watt over the entire lifetime of the system * pollution caused and non-renewable materials used per watt over the entire lifetime of the system. This research improves the cost per watt metric. As soon as it is better than coal, we will see huge solar cell power stations.
          • A manhattan skyscraper won't be able to power itself, but a 30km*30km plot of land in Nevada receives enough sunlight over 24 hours to power the entire U.S. with electricity.

            Well, no. Not really.

            Only way that this would be true is if we had 75% efficient solar panels.

            Last I checked, typical solar panel efficiency was in the timezone of 10-15% efficient.

        • by Iskender (1040286) on Tuesday March 13, 2012 @04:52PM (#39343901)

          Sure, solar power doesn't produce infinite power per area. But that doesn't matter. In fact, I'd argue it still produces quite a lot.

          It's been known for a long time that the price of manufacturing per watt is the important thing for solar, and that goes down all the time. There is no known lower limit to prices here.

          I think you're underestimating how much space there is when you say solar isn't very dense. A good sunny day will give 1000W solar input for one square metre. There are a million square metres in a square kilometre, meaning a gigawatt of solar input. That's a typical nuclear reactor's worth. But not all of that can be used. Let's assume 10% efficiency, meaning 10 square kilometres/nuclear reactor. Add half for support equipment and it's 15 square kilometres.

          That's a square less than four kilometres wide. For a nuclear reactor this would be an acceptable safety zone - it's pretty small really.

          There is plenty of space for solar if it only becomes cheap enough. It is already cheap enough in places like Hawaii, and it will only get cheaper while fossil fuel prices will keep going up.

      • by Artraze (600366) on Tuesday March 13, 2012 @04:11PM (#39343241)

        Well, it also doesn't hurt that when the technology comes out you get the marketing number only.

        Sure, the panels are 40c/W, but put them in a box, pay the employees and overhear and then they're $1/W. Install them with a conversion system and batteries and all of a sudden they're $3-$7 per Watt much like they've always really been. (And of course, that's peak, and the average cost it probably more like $10-$25 / Watt.)

        Developments like these are positive, to be sure, but the cells themselves are only part of a pretty pricy equation. Even if this tech pans out, it probably won't end up reducing the price much more than 20%. Nice, but no where near the "half" that they like to tell you.

    • by Alwin Henseler (640539) on Tuesday March 13, 2012 @03:27PM (#39342557) Homepage

      Yes, we here many of these stories, and then years later nothing has changed... Other than the fact that the cost/watt of pv has continued to drop a significant percentage year after year after year. If that doesn't suit one's definition of progress, redefine "nothing has changed"...

      (..), I would set up solar pv all over my property if it was just a bit more cost effective...

      If I'm not mistaken, pv already is cost-effective if not cheaper than conventional energy sources in a variety of places, be it with a significant upfront investment (but with cost-effective = including that investment). Any progress in the cost/watt department will simply increase the # of places where it pays to put up solar panels.

    • by tmosley (996283)
      Eh? Solar power has made huge strides in terms of decreasing costs even in the face of inflationary pressure. Solar used to be $5 a watt. Now it is common to find panels for $1 a watt (sunelec.com). This technology looks to cut that in HALF.
    • by TheRaven64 (641858) on Tuesday March 13, 2012 @03:28PM (#39342577) Journal
      I looked at solar panels for my house two years ago, and I looked again recently. The efficiency of the available cells has increased by about 50% for the same cost. So saying nothing has changed is a bit misleading.
      • by jandrese (485) <kensama@vt.edu> on Tuesday March 13, 2012 @03:39PM (#39342755) Homepage Journal
        Really, the problem is that Solar cells used to be 10x too expensive to be worthwhile for most people. Now they're only 2-3x too expensive. In a few more years they could actually start to become commonplace.
        • by TheRaven64 (641858) on Tuesday March 13, 2012 @03:52PM (#39342957) Journal
          With the subsidy factored in, they're actually a reasonably good investment now. The problem is that the current rate of development means that if I wait for a few years I'll get a much better system. This isn't a problem for something like a computer, because it's relatively cheap and I'll replace it in a few years anyway. Something like a solar power system I'd want to last for at least 10 years. If I can get one twice as good for the same price in two years, it's worth waiting...
    • by Teppy (105859) on Tuesday March 13, 2012 @03:30PM (#39342603) Homepage
      The prices we're seeing today are based on discoveries/improvements made several years ago. Look at how module prices have (mostly) dropped over the years: http://solarbuzz.com/facts-and-figures/retail-price-environment/module-prices [solarbuzz.com]
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by jank1887 (815982)

        how much of that price drop is accounted for by Chinese government subsidy and market flooding?

    • In two years, the price of solar panels has dropped by 50%, meaning that quite a few of the stories we've seen in the past years have made it into production.
      If you don't want to read about the fundamental research that inevitably predates commercial improvements, go read a marketing magazine.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      *ahem*:
      "Complete Hyperion 3 systems are available for shipment."
      from http://www.twincreekstechnologies.com/technology/hyperion.html

    • My money's on a near future story hailing cheap ultra super-efficient thin solar cells that enable cold fusion to power a perpetual motion machine that can guarantee peace in the middle east ;-)
    • by MrQuacker (1938262) on Tuesday March 13, 2012 @03:45PM (#39342841)

      The $/watt number refers to the cost of the PV chips. So it costs them $0.40 to create a chip that outputs 1 watt.

      At $0.40/w you're paying $400 for a 1Kw panel. At that cost it will take 4000 Kwh @ $0.10/Kwh to pay for itself. That's about 2 years if it gets ~8hrs of sun a day. Everything produced after that 4000Kwh is "free", and since panels last for 10, 15, even 20+ years, that's a lot of "free" power. If grid electricity costs more than $0.10/Kwh, then payback is even faster. (I'm assuming perfect efficiencies to keep the math simple, but you get the point)

      • That is a lot of free power IF you get those eight hours of sunlight, and IF you get them when you want them and IF you can use the power at the output voltage of the panel. Sadly not one of those is correct for home installation :o(

        You actually get an average 4 hours peak output for a fixed panel, the power arrives while you are at work, and you don't have too many devices that run off of 24v DC.

        It is the batteries, inverters, trackers and installation that make PV expensive.

        Of course most of this doesn't

        • by AmiMoJo (196126)

          That's why the energy company pays you for feeding back the unused energy you generate into the grid. Ultimately it boils down to a tonne of coal they didn't have to burn, a kg of nuclear fuel they didn't have to refine, manufacture and turn into waste or a cubic metre of gas they didn't have to ignite.

  • no way (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday March 13, 2012 @03:12PM (#39342337)

    whatever, I'm sure this was all true a year or 2 ago before module ASPS plummeted. however, these guys are now working against a commodity and china has demonstrated they are cool with 7% GM on modules. Polysilicon prices fell off a cliff and economies of scale have worked. wafer costs are 57c for the Chinese leaders now and their targets are under 50c by 2013, which means the competitive advantage of this process is zilch. This idea had legs in 2007-2008. No longer. Heck, even CdTe thin film lost its production cost advantage compared to China. Regular multi / quasi-mono cells will deliver terawatts of power. This other shit is a side show.

  • Watt vs KW/hr (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Kenja (541830) on Tuesday March 13, 2012 @03:13PM (#39342357)
    I assume the listed price of 40 pennies per watt is a watt per hour at peak performance? So to compare against a currently offered grid tie in system at 300 watt hours this seems to be about 1/10th the price. Granted, that's comparing a full system with alternators and a tie in system to feed unused power back into the grid, but given how PG&E prices per KW/hr in a tiered system (more power you use, more it costs per watt) this seems like a good deal.

    So a new excuse to put off installing solar panels for a while longer! Yay!
    • Re:Watt vs KW/hr (Score:5, Informative)

      by MrQuacker (1938262) on Tuesday March 13, 2012 @03:41PM (#39342793)

      No. The $/watt number refers to the cost of the PV chips. So it costs them $0.40 to create a chip that outputs 1 watt.

      At $0.40/w you're paying $400 for a 1Kw panel. At that cost it will take 4000 Kwh @ $0.10/Kwh to pay for itself. That's about 2 years if it gets ~8hrs of sun a day. Everything produced after that 4000Kwh is "free". If grid electricity costs more than $0.10/Kwh, then payback is even faster. (I'm assuming perfect efficiencies to keep the math simple, but you get the point)

    • There's no 'per hour' in this figure. At peak power, an area that will produce 1W costs 40 cents.
      Install this area, then yes it will produce up to 1 Wh in 1 hour.
      To compare to a grid-tied system you'll need to split its price into panels and electronics. As a shortcut, you can usually find the price per Watt of the panels since that's the easiest way to compare different panels. It bypasses the need to calculate the panel's efficiency vs. cost and gives a single metric to gauge the panel's economic feasibil

    • by jank1887 (815982)

      Watt per hour and watt-hour is not the same thing. watt-hour is energy. watt per hour is... change in power? You buy capacity, or power. I.e., a 500MW coal plant. if it runs for an hour, it produces 500MW-hours of energy. 40 pennies per watt means it will produce 1 watt of electricity under peak conditions for every $0.40 you invest into capacity. How much energy you'll actually put out over a day is another question altogether.

      a couple reports last year said something about $5/Watt installed would be the

  • by 140Mandak262Jamuna (970587) on Tuesday March 13, 2012 @03:14PM (#39342369) Journal
    So this is the year of the solar panels? Hope it goes as well as the year of Linux desktop.
  • Is it fancier to call those hydrogen ions? Because they're protons. Proton accelerator, sounds nice enough to me.

    • by Intropy (2009018)

      It probably accelerates deuterium and maybe some tritium along with all the protium. So generically "positive hydrgen ion" is fine.

  • Wait, WHAT! (Score:3, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday March 13, 2012 @03:15PM (#39342401)

    WE HAVE ION CANNONS?!?!?!

  • "thus within reach of challenging the fossil fuel hegemony" vs "leave it in a sunny area"

      I can run my lights all night long, which ironically enough is when I need them.

    And don't call it "Green" when there are some nice large battery stores that need to be dealt with in a few years.

    • by LanMan04 (790429)

      Store it as heat in a 55-gallon drum of molten salt. Pump water uphill.

      These are not hard problems when you don't have to stuff it all into a car.

      • You should visit a heat treatment shop (as in hardening metal) to see the fun safety issues that come with molten salt.

        Granting they often use molten cyanide salts, it will still be all kinds of fun when your kid attaches the garden hose to the breather.

  • come talk to me when we have photon torpedos...
  • by necro81 (917438) on Tuesday March 13, 2012 @03:17PM (#39342421) Journal
    This company isn't a solar panel manufacturer, per se, but rather a company that wants to manufacture semiconductor wafers that are thinner than you can get right now, with less waste. So, they are like those enterprising fellows that sold the shovels and pickaxes to gold prospectors back in the day. They didn't care who struck it rich so long as they could sell the equipment and supplies to all comers. They aren't Xerox or a publishing company; these guys want to sell reams of paper.

    This is great stuff – an innovation that can benefit the whole industry. There are other companies that are working along similar lines, though with different technology. 1366 Technologies [1366tech.com] is one that comes to mind.
    • by Amouth (879122)

      not even that - they aren't going to make wafers - they are building and selling the equipment to make the wafers.. so this is like the company that sold the laths to make handles to the company that made the pickaxes to sell to gold prospectors.

      normally i'd look at something like this and say "someone will buy and bury it" except it has more than one industry.. while it has the potential to drop solar panel costs.. it also has the potential to drop semiconductor fab costs.. so if someone wants to buy an

  • There's lots of technology that has gotten better price per watt ... but they all sucked at watts per area, so it wasn't worth installing them. (as you have similar installation cost for labor, with a longer payback period)

  • by jklovanc (1603149) on Tuesday March 13, 2012 @03:35PM (#39342705)

    Here are a few points that the article do not mention;
    1. What is the cost of the hydrogen ion particle accelerator?
    2. Is the low cost only taking into account the cost of materials and power and not the amortized cost of the machine?
    3. What is the efficiency of the panels? The hint that it is less due to the reflective surface but how much less is an issue. Lower cost is great but if it uses 4 times the area it might not be viable. I love this quote "Sivaram says the company has implemented an alternative anti-reflection technology that allows its solar cells to perform as well as ones made with the conventional process." If the process is not yet implemented it is only a theory and may not work.
    4. How resistant are these wafers to the elements?

    Yet another "release" that appears to be a technology article but really is a thinly veiled attempt at gathering investment capitol.

  • by feranick (858651) on Tuesday March 13, 2012 @03:35PM (#39342711)
    As far as I know, the reason silicon-based solar cells need to be thick is essentially because of the poor light absorption. Si is an indirect band semiconductor, which means that in order to have a splitting of electron and holes due to light, you need a thick layer of active material. Therefore, a thin solar cell would not provide enough photon to electron conversion. This is normally why direct band semiconductor solar cells (GaAs, CIGS) are usually thinner (about 1 micron) than Si. Bottom line: it's OK to make Si thinner, but what is the performance hit due to reduced sun collection?
  • by gestalt_n_pepper (991155) on Tuesday March 13, 2012 @03:36PM (#39342715)

    is all I can think when I read these stories.

  • by Kagato (116051) on Tuesday March 13, 2012 @03:37PM (#39342737)

    Twin Creeks doesn't make solar cells. They make machines used for making the major component of the cells. They have production ready machines for sales right now. According to the Wall Street Journal article they are quite happy to sell the machines to Red China and the WSJ thinks that's who's going to buy most of them given they have the capital and they don't have irrational politicians that think "green" is a bad word. We could be making the cells here in the US. But that's not going to happen because it's more politically expedient to sell out the countries future for short term gains. The end result is this technology will create a few hundred jobs in the US to make the specialized machines. Most of the end products will be purchased by European and Asian customers who have a long term energy policy.

  • Read the article and it immediately came to mind of all the recent solar failures like Solyndra.

    Twin Creeks illustrates perfectly why no government can be the one to pick a "successful" technology, because it never is known who the winners will be until later.

    • by Kagato (116051)

      I would point out that Solyndra was one of many green programs under the loan program. The vast majority of them did just fine. Surprisingly the best performing are the solar farms because the loans were backing projects that had 20-year energy purchase agreements.

  • and i'll bet you.... (Score:4, Informative)

    by Lumpy (12016) on Tuesday March 13, 2012 @03:53PM (#39342975) Homepage

    They also last half as long as today's cheapest cells.

    the ONLY cells that have any longevity are the grown crystal types. The garbage that you see at the low price end lose 20% of their power generating capacity each year.

    the 45 watt harbor freight kit will be generating 2 watts in 4 years, even in a northern climate.

    Call me when these new "cheap" solar cell techniques will last 40 years under airizona sun. I still have 4 old panels from the 80's that have turned dark brown and they generate 70% of their new rated capacity, and they were retired from a solar farm in 1993.

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