: Photo: Emily Lang/Wired.comSAN FRANCISCO -- Despite uneven support from the U.S. government, solar power is experiencing aglobal explosion. Concerns over climate change and rising energy prices have driven billions of dollars into developing the efficiency and variety of technologies that capture power from the sun.
And we're not just talking about new photovoltaic panels. The entire production chain is being re-engineered, from materials to manufacturing process to solar tracking.
Check out the hottest advances in sun-energy harvesting on display at this week's Intersolar North America conference.
China's Red-Hot Solar Water Tech
These strange-looking pipes are actually part of a solar hot-water heater produced by the Chinese company WesTech
. Stick these on your roof, and they collect heat energy from the sun, heating the water inside, and insulating like a thermos to keep warm.
While U.S. residential setups usually employ other, more-expensive technologies
, Chinese systems oftenjust use evacuated tubes like these. Lower price points have helped drivethe Chinese domestic market: An estimated one in 10 Chinese households
owns one. And now, Chinese companies with big manufacturing capacity aretrying to bring their low-cost tech to the United States.
: Photo: Emily Lang/Wired.comSolar-panel placement is like sunbathing: You want maximum exposure to the sun's most direct rays. That’s the idea behind this rotating rack for solar panels. As the sun moves across the sky, the superstructure and circular track rotate to keep the panels in the most direct sunlight.
SunCarrier (pictured) and RW Energy, which make similar systems, claim the rigs increase the efficiency of solar panels by 30 percent.
: Photo: Emily Lang/Wired.comPhotovoltaics have long been the province of scientists and green idealists. That's one reason why less than 1 percent of the world's energy is derived from solar power. To make a dent in the world energy market, solar players are going to have to scale up -- and fast.
One major way, said Ian Chen of Multicontact, which makes solar-panel connectors, is the way industry has always done it: automation. It's not just "doing the same process you've been doing in a garage but at a larger scale," he said. To cut costs and increase production, solar companies are having to design processes for automation from the ground up.
: Photo: Emily Lang/Wired.comThis machine from Adept uses machine vision and a vacuum to pluck solar cells off a conveyor belt. This speedy, spidery robot -- the Quattro -- can be had for under six figures, according to Jay Sacharia, the company's head of corporate marketing.
: Photo: Emily Lang/Wired.comYou could be staring at the future of solar power. SolFocus' concentrating solar panels
use mirrors to focus the sun's rays on a small amount of highly efficient photovoltaic material. First, the primary mirror -- the curved backstop -- concentrates the light onto a smaller mirror that you can see the back of in the image. That second mirror bounces the light down the unit's optical rod to the waiting PV cell.
The setup allows SolFocus to capture light over a large area while keeping costs down. How much? Stephanie Southerland, head of corporate development, said the company's goal is "cost parity with fossil fuels by 2010." Talk like that has tickled investors' imaginations: They've already poured $95 million
into the company through two rounds of financing.
: Photo: Emily Lang/Wired.comLumeta's new solar panels are the first "solar stickers." Developed by a roofing-and-construction company for easy installation, contractors simply peel-and-stick the panels onto flat roofs. While the panels are lighter than traditional racked systems, they lose the optimal angle to the sun by sticking flat on the roof. Lumeta COO Stephen Torres
told Wired.com in May that this downside costs his company's panels about 5 percent of their power production.
: Photo: Emily Lang/Wired.com"Integrated solar" has been a catch phrase for a long time. It refers to solar panels that can be manufactured directly into buildings and products. At the conference, Global Solar was showing off a thin-film, building-integrated product it calls PowerFlex Solar Strings. These striplike solar cells offer 70 to 90 watts per meter of material, according to the company.
Global Solar also uses its technology in solar chargers like the one pictured, which generates 6.5 watts and goes for about $100. Charles Gambill, the company's corporate product director, said it could charge a cellphone in two to three hours. And most important, it looks just like Wall-E's fold-up charger.
: Photo: Emily Lang/Wired.comConsidering that Intersolar was held in conjunction with Semicon West, it's no surprise that semiconductor companies were crawling around the showroom floor. What was
surprising was the buzz surrounding Applied Materials' entrance into the photovoltaic market.
One show participant, Nathan Singsen of SolarFrameWorks, even went so far as saying, "Applied Materials will probably take over the whole solar industry." Chris Beitel, Applied Materials' thin-film manager, would probably agree. He argues that Applied's experience scaling and optimizing semiconductor production will be directly applicable to similar problems in PV. "We can go to a new level of scale."
As proof, Applied showed off this extra-large thin-film panel, which it manufactures for Signet Solar. Solar companies appear to buy the rap: Beitel said they've already signed $3 billion worth of contracts.
: Photo: Emily Lang/Wired.comAs solar companies receive more venture capital, they can afford to invest in new materials that could drive innovation. That's where Agilent's Nano Indenter comes into play. It measures the mechanical properties, like stiffness and elasticity, of ultrathin materials. The indenter presses on the material at nanoscale and measures the shape and nature of the impression that it makes.
: Photo: Emily Lang/Wired.comSilicon wafers have to be sliced and diced in order to become the chips thatgo into your PC and phone. A similar process has to occur to make solarcells. Chipmakers used to use diamond blades, but the German companyJenoptik has a new way: thermal laser-beam separation. The company'srepresentatives said using lasers instead of diamonds provides a cleanercut, which reduces the amount of wasted material.
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