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The Future of Solar: Black Silicon

Like many other alternative energy industries, solar energy companies suffer from one major problem: the cost of production is simply too high for solar energy to take place on a large scale. Federal subsidies exist to alleviate some of the cost associated with solar, but these are largely misguided subsidies that favor a few companies over others, rather than truly working to make solar a viable solution to our energy crisis. With ever increasing threats from countries like Iran, we cannot afford for so much of our oil to come from an OPEC country. Prioritizing domestic energy sources that do not have a harmful environmental impact is of utmost importance.

Though touted by many as the solution to our energy woes, traditional solar development is clearly not cutting it. Innovation is spurred by desperation, however. Two major issues impede traditional solar power from being able to power more our electricity grid. First, traditional solar panels can only access about 75 percent of the solar spectrum because they are unable to absorb infrared rays. One-fourth of the energy potentially produced by the sun is wasted simply because we lack the marketable technology to access it. Secondly, because traditional solar panels cannot absorb the full span of solar rays, they require anti-reflective adaptations that can increase not only the cost of production but also the cost of upkeep. However, the solar industry may have finally rounded the corner from lagging potential to booming production with the use of black silicon cells.

Black Silicon Cells: How They Work

Conventional forms of solar development only capture certain types of energy from the sun, and they lack the capacity to absorb infrared energy. With impressively low reflectivity, black silicon can procure energy from the sun that regular solar panels cannot. This includes solar absorption early in the morning, late in the evening, on cloudy days, and under other circumstances that are typically underutilized by solar resources. Already, the ability to absorb energy in these circumstances is a massive advantage.

Originally, production of black silicon cells presented a dilemma: while they captured the infrared rays that traditional solar could not access, they were losing a lot of that captured energy. The process that allows black silicon to access infrared rays also caused a reversion in the electron process that caused such low efficiency in use of these cells. New developments now use a laser pulse to reposition the atoms and increase the maximum potential energy levels.

Part of the high production cost associated with solar panels is the crucial addition of anti-reflective layers to solar panels. These enable solar panels to function at a higher level of efficiency, and they protect traditional solar energy from energy sources that they can’t absorb. Fortunately, black silicon does not require these additional layers, and that cuts production costs considerably. In black silicon technology, walls and holes are smaller than the rays the cells are attempting to absorb, meaning that none of these solar rays are reflected back into the atmosphere.

Industry Impact

Companies started producing black silicon in the 1980s, but it never took off as the star of the solar market. Recent revisions to the manufacturing should drastically change that, however. Industry pioneers have doubled the efficiency of black solar by introducing a step into the manufacturing process that uses sulfur to enable electrons to reach a greater height. Black silicon should not only garner far more media attention than it is currently receiving; it should be receiving the brunt of investment directed at the solar industry. Recent reports show that Natcore Technology, a solar company, has successfully used black silicon to solve their production cost problems. Current solar technologies can absorb up to 95 percent of the energy they encounter, meaning progress in terms of energy absorption is often measured in single digits. The enhancements that Natcore has made will increase cell efficiency by 3 percent.

With such efficient cell technology available, the industry, those who invest in it, and the general public should all push for this technology to be adapted into working solar panels. That is the step that remains between this technology and being able to use black silicon to power the grid. While black silicon cells have reached a point where it is viable to mass-produce them, they have not yet been incorporated into ready-to-use solar panels. The possibility also exists for hybrid panels, which would combine black silicon with regular solar technology to create panels that can access 100 percent of the sun’s available energy. These hybrid panels would conceivably be much cheaper than traditional panels, as the black silicon technology could serve as a substitute for the expensive anti-reflective technology that accompanies conventional solar panels. The anti-reflective nature of black silicon is far more powerful than the anti-reflective layers that are usually added to solar panels; the solar industry would be trading up, not only in terms of energy production but also in energy efficiency.

Obstacles To Production

Natcore is the only company to have successfully achieved this innovation so far, and it is because the initial R&D costs are prohibitively high for many companies. With such high potential rewards for continuing investment in black silicon, the argument that money should be moved from traditional solar technology and re-directed towards black silicon development is not only intuitive, but also the best possible choice that the solar industry could make. The current direction of the solar industry is increasingly troublesome, as company after company goes bankrupt, wasting millions of taxpayer dollars in the process. The industry should take the necessary steps to change its course, rather than continuing to chase after failed technology. Black silicon panels are certainly the solar industry’s answer to a stalled market, and they may well prove to be the answer to the U.S. energy crisis as well.

While, for the moment, development of black silicon solar panels may remain in the hands of Natcore, their patents on the technology and eagerness to mass-produce this technology ensure that the production of this technology will undoubtedly increase. As they begin seeing profitable returns from black silicon technologies, other companies will surely follow.

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