A Reality Check For Solar Nanotech

green.pngWhile the sustainability bandwagon rolls inexorably on, I have noticed an increasing number of presentations claiming that nanotechnology will solve the worlds problems. Otillia Saxl of the IoN pointed out recently in Norway a number of ways that nanotechnologies can provide solutions, although I was rather glad that she didn’t go into the precise details of how nanotechnology can solve global overpopulation by reducing it to a sustainable level of two billion people!

I think it is important to be rational about this. A lot of wild claims have been made, but most of them lack any timescale. Our projections show the impact of nanotechnology on global carbon emissions to be in the range of 0.0003% over the next four years, so let’s not get too carried away.

In the short term, any solutions will come from making better use of existing resources, not from thin film solar or the still mythical hydrogen economy. The companies using nanotechnology to produce thin film solar systems have burned through a quarter of a billion dollars of venture capital money over six years, and still haven’t cracked the manufacturing and reliability issues which will make the technology economic. In the meantime, the easing of the current silicon shortage coupled with advances in the efficiency of current generation solar cells gives the nanotech based solutions a narrowing window of opportunity to aim at.

We were here ten years ago with field emission displays, and the situation is not dissimilar. While FEDs were attempting to be a disruptive technology to replace LCDs, their reliability (and manufacturability) could not be solved due to the fundamental problem of maintaining a vacuum in a very thin envelope while having high energy electrons bouncing of phosphors. Companies such as Samsung and Motorola spent a huge amount of resources on addressing these issues, but in the meantime, LCD manufactures has increasing product revenue, a proportion of which was then diverted to R&D. As a result, LCDs went from VGA to XVGA in a matter of years, while the intrinsic resolution limits of FEDs meant that they could not provide the resolution of LCDs and would only be economic when pushed out into the 50″ or above screen sizes.

A similar situation is occurring in thin film solar, with purveyors of existing technologies being able to divert sales revenue to process and technology improvements, while some of the thin film companies only have a single shot at getting it right. I would estimate the window to be open for a year or two, although this is still an artificial market distorted by huge government subsidies which could tip the balance in favour of new technologies.

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