IBM Creates Affordable Solar Cells

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Usually comprised of rare elements, solar cells are found in rooftop solar panels. Photo: Flickr/reiner.kraft

Solar cells are usually not considered the most inexpensive piece of green technology, but they may soon become a widely manufactured product due to new research by IBM.

Advanced Materials, a science journal, recently published a technical paper which described a new kind of solar cell made of common elements like zinc, tin, sulfur, copper and selenium.

Both commercial silicon cells and the cheaper thin-film cells exceed the efficiency of IBM’s sustainable solar cell.

However, IBM argues that because the materials which make up a silicon-based solar cell are not abundant in the earth, this does not enable them to serve a long-term purpose as a viable form of green technology.

David Mitzi, an IBM researcher, said the basis for the project was to replicate a thin-film solar cell which uses both plentiful elements and reduces cost.

He explained that current solar cells use indium and tellurium, both rare elements that are already being depleted because they are in high demand from other markets. For instance, indium is frequently used in the display systems of flat-screen TVs.

IBM’s new “kesterite” cells utilize a printing technique to lower the costs of the manufacturing process. A solution containing a hydrazine solution (copper and tin with nanoparticles of zinc) is spin-coated and heat-treated alongside selenium or sulfur vapor.

Currently, solar cells contribute less than 0.1 percent to the planet’s electricity due to its hefty price tag and the rarity of the elements which are used to manufacture the technology. Despite being less efficient, IBM’s new solar cell may change the way people perceive sustainable living, as both affordable and accessible.

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