Solar Power Without Silicon

Lynne Kiesling

Did you know that there is excess demand for silicon? No, I bet you didn’t. Actually, there probably isn’t excess demand, because prices have been rising to signal the scarcity and people are looking for substitutes. All sorts of technologies use silicon, and supplies are scarce and prices high. One technology that uses silicon is solar panels. Wired has an article about alternative solar panel and solar cell technologies that don’t use silicon, or use much less.

On the shorter end of the power-generation life cycle, Konarka, a startup in Lowell, Massachusetts, has agreements in place with manufacturers to produce a printed “power plastic” to supply solar energy for portable devices.

“When people think of solar, they think of rooftop, grid-connected. We’re trying to change that mindset,” said Daniel Patrick McGahn, Konarka’s chief marketing officer. Unlike silicon-based solar cells used on rooftops today, Konarka’s specialized plastics typically last years, but not decades. The company is marketing its technology for use in products with similar life spans.

While research into printed photovoltaic technologies dates back decades, progress on non-silicon applications has accelerated in recent years due to the shortage of polysilicon, said Travis Bradford, president of the Prometheus Institute for Sustainable Development in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Today, nearly 95 percent of solar cells use semiconductor-grade silicon, he estimates, but that should drop to around 80 percent over the next few years.

Pretty cool.


5 thoughts on “Solar Power Without Silicon

  1. Weeeelll….yes there is excess demand for silicon, sorta, however economically strange that sounds.

    The raw material is sand so that’s not a problem. But the energy required to turn that into Si metal is substantial. So solar cells have traditionally been made from material made for the computer industry but which then failed the very high purities required (‘zone refined’ is the phrase and it uses a great deal of electrical power).

    With the rise in demand for Si for solar cells, this source is being exhausted, so the cell manufacturers are facing paying the full cost of refining, rather than picking up waste from the previous process.

    That’s what’s driving the search for alternatives.

    At least, so say my friends in the metals business who sell Si metal.

  2. Weeeelll….yes there is excess demand for silicon, sorta, however economically strange that sounds.

    The raw material is sand so that’s not a problem. But the energy required to turn that into Si metal is substantial. So solar cells have traditionally been made from material made for the computer industry but which then failed the very high purities required (‘zone refined’ is the phrase and it uses a great deal of electrical power).

    With the rise in demand for Si for solar cells, this source is being exhausted, so the cell manufacturers are facing paying the full cost of refining, rather than picking up waste from the previous process.

    That’s what’s driving the search for alternatives.

    At least, so say my friends in the metals business who sell Si metal.

  3. The other problem is that Silicon is typically grown into a crystalline form and then cut. These plastics can be made into any shape they want. An integrating sphere made from photovoltaic material may boost yields.

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