Materials science, yeah baby!*
Health care and material scientists within GE will see if their work translates to solar.
Finally, the two great issues of our day -- energy and health care -- come together.
Earlier this month, General Electric formally announced that it would develop its own line of cadmium telluride solar panels in conjunction with PrimeStar Solar and sell the panels to developers of utility-scale solar parks starting next year.
A number of observers, however, wondered why. Panel prices have continued to plummet and the flood of new competitors has helped turn solar panels into a commodity; in 2009, in fact, GE shut down a crystalline silicon solar plant.
The answer in part turns out to lay in material science research taking place in other parts of GE, particularly the health care group.
"We are at the forefront of sensitivity of thin films," said Bruce Norman, the technology leader for GE's solar business and one of the speakers at next week's Solar Summit 2010 sponsored by Greentech Media.
Many of GE's digital X-ray technologies essentially revolve around exploiting thin films to exchange electrons and/or photons, he noted. Cadmium telluride also shares some of the processing characteristics of gallium arsenide, a semiconductor employed in X-ray imaging.
Perhaps even more directly, the company will also take advantage of encapsulants and other materials developed for organic light emitting diodes, or OLEDs. Like thin film solar cells, OLEDs degrade over time and the degradation can accelerate with exposure to moisture and the outside environment. Sealants have been a huge issue for the CIGS market. Conceivably, this gives GE at least a few of the tools it will need to get into CIGS as well.
If GE can leverage the work of its worldwide research labs, it could change the characteristics of the thin film market. First Solar has long dominated the field in cadmium telluride solar cells and in the process has become the world's largest solar manufacturer. First Solar, however, sells modules with efficiencies that hover around 11 percent and boosting efficiencies has become more difficult and expensive as the number has climbed. Suddenly, one of the biggest employers of condensed matter physics is interested.
Much of GE's research, arguably, would be comparatively inexpensive: the health care group has already paid for a good portion of the basic science. In a sense, IBM is pursuing a similar strategy -- repurposing materials from lithography and chips for water purification -- but IBM licenses its technology, whereas GE uses its technology in-house.
GE hasn't said what the efficiencies of its panel will be, but the company has said it wants to come out with panels that will be market leaders.
In a sense, the cadmium telluride strategy is similar to the strategy GE took last year when it jumped into sodium metal halide batteries for trains and the grid. Japan's NGK has enjoyed a virtual monopoly in this sub-segment of the battery world as the only major supplier of sodium sulfur batteries....MORE
What It Takes: Building a Materials Science Company for the 21st Century
"The Future of Building Materials"
"Can R&D Save General Electric?" and "GE's Risky Energy Research" (GE)
Watch Out First Solar: "GE outlines R&D efforts with CdTe thin-film technology" (FSLR; GE)
Q&A: Mark Little, Head of GE Global Research- "GE is pushing the smart grid and thin-film solar, but don't expect new kinds of nuclear reactors."
Solar: What Would You Think of a Cell that Can Trap 85% of Available Light?
I've said it a few times, most recently in last month's "Deep Solar Science at Stanford":Besides the dependence on subsidies the scariest thing about investing in solar is the possibility that some lab in Shenzen or Cambridge (both of 'em) or Cali will come up with something that makes current technology obsolete overnight....
There are two areas of knowledge required for the next industrial revolution, this is an example of one of them, materials science at the nano level.The other is manufacturing science where, in the first industrial revolution, it seemed that half the engineers in the world were Scottish. Who's going to step up this time?