The Sandia National Laboratories have achieved a landmark breakthrough in solar-voltaic power-generation technology. The snowflake-like “solar glitter” uses 100 times less material to produce the same amount of electricity as today’s standard 6-inch square solar cells. This achievement of ultra-miniaturization now has the potential to move solar-voltaic power generation to the forefront of the clean energy revolution, and help speed the transition away from carbon-based combustible fuels.
The super-reduced size of these snowflake solar cells means they can be used to create more dependable power-generation solar arrays. As reported by Inhabitat (‘green design will save the world’), when a large solar cell fails, it has a serious impact on the overall productivity of the solar array, already limited by the space it takes up, while these tiny snowflake cells, just 14 to 20 micrometers thick and 0.25 to 1 millimeter in diameter, can fit so much more productivity into the same space, the failure of one flake will have negligible overall impact on output.
The uniquely small size of these powerful electricity-producing cells also means they can deployed in creative new ways that add to the efficiency of their role in power generation. They can be woven into fabrics, spread across tents, added to consumer electronics and to clothing, and could help to make rechargeable devices recharge constantly, so they never need to be plugged in.
The solar particles, fabricated of crystalline silicon, hold the potential for a variety of new applications. They are expected eventually to be less expensive and have greater efficiencies than current photovoltaic collectors that are pieced together with 6-inch- square solar wafers. The cells are fabricated using microelectronic and microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) techniques common to today’s electronic foundries.
Among the serious productivity gains inherent in the snowflake solar cell design, they can be harvested from existing industrial-production silicon wafers. What’s more, if one unit is corrupted in production, the rest can still be harvested, finished and deployed, unlike with the larger standard wafers produced from silicon bricks.
Another potential application would be to embed the solar flakes into innovative design materials used to clad the outside of buildings, allowing for structures made of glass or steel, but also stone or brick, to act as solar power generation facilities. There is also great potential for these ultra-miniaturized solar flakes to act as solar-voltaic reception units lining the edges of organic solar concentrators, specially dyed windows that channel light energy to solar cells at the edges.
According to the Sandia National Labs press report:
Other unique features are available because the cells are so small. “The shade tolerance of our units to overhead obstructions is better than conventional PV panels,” said Nielson, “because portions of our units not in shade will keep sending out electricity where a partially shaded conventional panel may turn off entirely.” Because flexible substrates can be easily fabricated, high-efficiency PV for ubiquitous solar power becomes more feasible, said [Sandia researcher Murat] Okandan.
The cells may also have applications other than solar power generation. The technology could be used to help enhance remote sensing equipment, to better measure weather patterns, environmental trends, including complex ecosystem degradation, and possibly for remote motion tracking and pattern sensing.