Friday, June 20, 2008

Better Than Printing Money?

EDN Magazine reports on a new technology for making solar cells. Printing them.

This week, Nanosolar put up a video of its 1GW (in annual production) solar ink coating machine, which the company says costs $1.65M. The coater, which works in a normal factory environment, and coats metal film with a proprietary ink based on a Copper-Indium-Gallium-Diselenide (CIGS) compound, is just a continuous-process printing machine, and is inherently cheaper and simpler than traditional silicon wafer deposition processes used in today’s photovoltaic cells. True, the efficiency of the Nanosolar technology is less: 14% compared to ~25% silicon wafer efficiency. But 14% is still very practical.

So, in essence you have a machine you pay $1.65M for and feed in CIGS ink and metal foil, and at the end of the year you have produced 1GW worth of thin-film solar cells which you sell for about $1/W, or about $1B worth of product. Yeah, I’m beginning to see Nanosolar’s business model.

Here’s another interesting energy number from the Nanosolar site: Energy payback time is the time that a solar panel has to be used in order to generate the amount of energy required to produce it. The energy payback time for a Nanosolar panel is less than two months. A typical silicon wafer solar panel has an energy payback time of around three years, and a typical vacuum-deposited thin-film cell has one of 1-2 years.
I'm wondering if this might not be a Pony Express situation. Where the solar guys have figured out how to start getting into the market in a big way and then are derailed by something like this: World's Simplest Fusion Reactor Revisited. Just as the Pony Express was derailed by copper wires. At least the solar stuff is a sure thing. Even at my most optimistic I still have to say that fusion as of now is not a proven technology. It is still just promise. In any case the choices are widening. Now if we could just get the NIMBYs and their politician enablers out of the way.

Cross Posted at Classical Values


Christophe said...

Just one huge problem ... all those compounds they use are much more in depletion than oil.

Great technology. Good use for the remaining reserves. But we won't be able to produce like this for very long.

Oil "has run out".

To be honest, I don't know (yet) what diselenide is and how much of it is left, but we're next to out of gallium and out of indium.

IF we're to have a solar panel economy, the solar panels will have to be organic (made of C-H-N-O)

Christophe said...

Oh I forgot Fe and Cu are still in abundant supply too, so I guess you could incorporate them too.

ZenDraken said...

Take a look at the Minerals Yearbooks at this site:

Gallium prices have actually decreased over the last 10 years, which suggests that there is enough gallium out there.

The indium data for 2006 is a little less clear, but does not seem alarming in any way.

Besides all that, Nanosolar has probably done their homework in terms of feedstock prices and availability. The sky is not falling.

linearthinker said...

Zendraken's link informs that indium is mainly obtained as a by-product of zinc refining. There's no shortage of zinc. I think it was quoted as being 23rd in abundance of common minerals, and in tonnage produced, stands fourth among all metals in world production - being exceeded only by iron, aluminum, and copper.

I'd agree the indium data, by inference, "does not seem alarming in any way."

The oil has run out argument is just flat wrong.

Christophe said...

Well I got most of the data from here :

Here's the graph for gallium mining, apparently we're not out of it yet, but normally the descent should be steeper than the ascent. Meaning we'll be basically out of gallium by 2023.

If you follow the "export country model", which basically states that with the (possible) exception of America (and the exception of Iran, but that's only because they aren't capable of processing crude oil), all nations have hoarded ALL their reserves of a certain chemical very quickly after they hit peak : within 5-10 years after peak production, exports hit zero. Case studies (for oil) : Indonesia, UK, ...

ZenDraken said...

If there was a shortage of gallium compared to demand, the price would have increased. The price and mining data taken together indicate that the overall demand for gallium has decreased in recent years.

If the demand increases, the price will increase. More money will then go into extracting gallium, the price will lower, etc. Perhaps the web site you are referencing is only looking at the supply side.

If you are into commodities trading (and the associated risk), gallium may be worth looking at now.

Also: Gallium is a byproduct of aluminum smelting. See: It's worth noting that aluminum is the second most abundant element in the Earth's crust, and gallium seems to exist in the Earth's crust in a specific ratio with aluminum.

Christophe said...

If the demand increases, the price will increase. More money will then go into extracting gallium, the price will lower, etc. Perhaps the web site you are referencing is only looking at the supply side.

The same argument could be made about oil : it's just not going to happen.

The elements for which this can go on for a while are very limited, and limited to primary supernova remnants : we have them in abundance, and it's trivial to find more :

-> hydrogen
-> helium
-> carbon
-> oxygen
-> neon, natrium, magnesium, aluminum
-> silicium, sulphur, argon, calcium
-> iron

And here the bucket stops. All other elements are in terminally short supply. We have a tiny quantity, perhaps a few thousand tons accessible, and that's it ...

Economics trumps politics, I agree. But nature trumps economics : if there isn't any more, no amount of money will increase supply.

ZenDraken said...

Oil: There are several factors increasing the price, but it still comes down to increased demand and reduced supply. The easy/cheap oil is being used up. There is still lots of oil left, it just requires more effort: politically and bureaucratically as much as physically.

The money pouring into the oil industry right now will end up increasing the supply. The price may not return to $20/barrel, but it will drop significantly. This cycle has happened before.

Other resources: I agree that the Earth is limited. I also believe that we've barely scratched the surface and our limits are mostly self-imposed. And if we don't want to do any more resource-scratching down here, there are always the asteroids. We are not doomed to an ever-shrinking pie.