With crude oil prices hovering near record highs, some cutting-edge startup companies are seeking new sources of solar energy based on breakthroughs that use nanotechnology.
Nanotech is a fast-growing field that combines physics and chemistry to create products manufactured on an atomic scale. One nanometer is one-billionth of a meter.
Many materials and processes display unique traits at such tiny sizes. Some nanotech consumer goods already on the market include clear sunscreen lotions and stain-free fabrics. Nanotech also is used to make computer chips and flat-screen displays.
At least three startups -- Nanosolar, Nanosys and Konarka Technologies -- are using nanotech to try to make solar energy more viable. In time, such work could become "world changing," said Josh Wolfe, a managing partner of nanotech-focused investment firm Lux Capital in New York. Lux has
"All three of these firms have a different approach, but all of them are trying to create solar energy anywhere, any time," Wolfe said.
Needs To Hit 7-Cent Mark
Nanotech solar cells could come down to fossil-fuel prices within a few years, says Steven Milunovich, an analyst with Merrill Lynch. Electricity now costs 7 cents per kilowatt-hour in the U.S. and 19 cents in Japan. Solar cells run about 43 cents.
"There could be significant adoption" if nanotech solar drops below 7 cents, said Milunovich in a recent research note. Nanotech could have "a significant impact" on the $3 billion-plus solar power market.
"Cheaper manufacturing plants and processes could make solar competitive with fossil fuels," he wrote.
Nanosolar, based in Palo Alto, Calif., is building nanotech panels that are 100 times thinner than current solar panels.
This approach could let the firm mass-produce cheaper solar cells by printing them out like rolls of newspaper. Such sheets can then be placed on rooftops to power buildings.
In theory, the thin panels could run most anything that runs on electricity.
Nanosolar plans to make test products next year and go to full production the following year. The firm's new type of solar electricity cells will be far more cost-effective than current products, says Nanosolar Chief Executive Martin Roscheisen. "It is a better energy source," he said.
Nanosys, also based in Palo Alto, has partnered with Japanese corporate giant Matsushita (NYSE:MC - News) to make nano materials into special shapes known as tetrapods. This material is laid onto plastic substrates that are produced like photo film to make nanopanels that are more flexible and smaller than current rooftop solar panels.
By encasing such solar panels between windowpanes, skyscrapers might someday double as self-contained power plants, says Peter Garcia, the company's chief financial officer.
Pulled Planned IPO
Nanosys plans to start volume production in two to four years, says Garcia. The company pulled back from an initial public stock offering of its stock in August, citing a tough IPO market.
"Our idea is to make solar power more aesthetically pleasing, while more efficient as well," Garcia said.
Konarka of Lowell, Mass., is developing plastic sheets that are embedded with titanium oxide nanocrystals. The crystals are coated with light-absorbing dyes.
This process produces a light-activated plastic that's inexpensive, lightweight and flexible. The plastic can be formed into any number of colors and patterns.
Such material can then be embedded as a low-cost source of power into the outer shells of cell phones, gaming consoles, computers or rooftops, says Daniel McGahn, executive vice president of Konarka.
Of course, these new nanosolar systems won't replace today's energy sources overnight. But over time?
"We're trying to change the face of renewable energy," McGahn said. "Our goal is to develop something that common people will use and enjoy at a cost that's palatable."