Mar 14, 2012 3:01 AM GMT
I would note though that when it comes to solar, the need for batteries may not be as great given that the power output from solar is often greatest at peak usage times anyway.
This is where Twin Creeks’ ion cannon, dubbed Hyperion, comes into play. If you look at the picture above, 3-millimeter-thick silicon wafers are placed around the outside edge of the big, spoked wheel. A particle accelerator bombards these wafers with hydrogen ions, and with exacting control of the voltage of the accelerator, the hydrogen ions accumulate precisely 20 micrometers from the surface of each wafer. A robotic arm then transports the wafers to a furnace where the ions expand into hydrogen gas, which cause the 20-micrometer-thick layer to shear off. A metal backing is applied to make it less fragile (and highly flexible, as you see on the right), and the remaining silicon wafer is taken back to the particle accelerator for another dose of ions. At a tenth of the thickness and with considerably less wastage, it’s easy to see how Twin Creeks can halve the cost of solar cells.
According to Technology Review, ion beams have been considered before, but particle accelerators were simply too expensive to be commercially viable. This is the flip side of Twin Creeks’ innovation: It had to make its own particle accelerator which is “10 times more powerful” (100mA at 1 MeV) than anything on the market today.
When all’s said and done, if you buy Twin Creeks’ equipment, it is promising a cost of around 40 cents per watt, about half the cost of panels currently coming out of China (where the vast majority of solar panels are made). At that price, solar power begins to encroach on standard, mostly-hydrocarbon-derived grid power — but, of course, we still need to create batteries that can store solar power over night. Maybe Stanford has the answer to that problem, though, with its everlasting nanobattery — and then there’s Nortwestern University’s graphene-doped lithium-ion batteries, and, perhaps most realistically, electric cars like the Nissan Leaf that can double up as a glorified house battery.