Start-up announces extreme solar cells

Sunrgi, a Hollywood-based start-up, came out of stealth mode this week claiming it can collect twice as much sunlight as other photovoltaic designs and convert it to electricity for 5 cents a kilowatt-hour, on par with fossil fuels.

The company’s core technology is concentrating solar power, which uses lenses to focus sunlight onto small strips of photovoltaic cells. The advantage is that more photons are collected by smaller quantities of solar cells, meaning that the systems require much less of the expensive semiconductor materials that go into making ordinary solar panels. But the cells are also fragile and easily damaged in extreme heat, as I wrote about here.

Sunrgi’s solution involves “goop--or at least that’s what GreenTechMedia quotes Paul Sidlo, a co-founder and partner at Sunrgi, as saying. It sounds like a nanotech slurry that’s mounted on the back of a fairly ordinary solar cell to conduct heat away from the cell. That makes sense: the most common nanotech structures are carbon nanotubes, which are pretty routinely investigated for myriad uses that build off of the tubes’ unique strength and ability to conduct heat. As you can see from the image, this isn’t your average solar module.

The company plans to begin production of their Xtreme Concentrated Photovoltaics, or XCPV, in about 15 months. Add to this the growing presence of thin-film solar modules on the market--especially First Solar, which had a generating capacity of 300 megawatts last year--and we may begin to see big changes in the solar-power landscape as early as next year. Most thin-film makers use cadmium telluride rather than silicon, the core material that’s chronically in short supply to PV manufacturers. The cells that Sunrgi is using also aren’t made from silicon, a sign that solar industry is pushing to overcome the main hurdle keeping the cells’ costs up and manufacturing capacity down.

To make the economics work, Sunrgi is banking on the fact that its cooling capabilities will outstrip the cost of making the more complicated solar modules, and that the ability of the solar cells to soak up more watts will allow for smaller, more efficient installations that can finally compete on equal footing with fossil fuels.

If they can pull this off, the technology might be revolutionary.