At the University of Southern California, chemists Richard L. Brutchey and David H. Webber have invented the next incarnation of solar power technology. By creating a liquid suspension of cadmium selenide, a semiconductor, the researchers have found a way to paint a thin layer of light absorbing molecules onto existing surfaces. The crystals are cheaper than conventional single-crystal silicon wafers, but are less efficient. Two of the hopeful applications are the making of plastic solar cells that would be flexible and the addition of the crystals to ink for conventional printing purposes.
The research is still very early and faces several challenges ahead. First, cadmium selenide is toxic and it’s use in commercial applications is restricted. However, the researchers are hopeful that improvements will lead to less toxic materials being used. The difficulty was in the proof of concept, the fabrication of a solar cell suspension. Second, compared to conventional cells, they liquid version is both cheaper to make and less efficient at capturing solar energy. Future studies will have to calculate the cost per kilowatt hour of this new material, which is the true metric of commercialization. There is another consideration to be made, an aesthetic appeal. Some of the problems with conventional solar panels are their size, weight, fragility, and their lack of visual appeal.
Not for much longer! I can see a future where art and science overlap even more. Where giant murals are painted onto the equator facing walls of tall buildings and then coated with liquid solar technology. The electricity generated from this fusion would power the buildings on which they are painted. Important documents could be printed with the new inks. Rather than decaying under the influence of light, the photons would be absorbed and channeled into something useful. Solution phase solar panels might not face the same reflection issues of conventional solar panels, leading to even higher efficiency.
The value of art is as a form of expression. Just as the science of synthetic dyes revolutionized the clothing and paint industries, it’s possible that artistic creation could do the same for science and its applications.