Will nano flakes revolutionize solar energy?

Even President Obama is interested in solar technology. Imagine how interested he'd be in a next-generation solar technology that's smaller, cheaper and more efficient. See more green science pictures.
AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

It seems like every day we hear about a new technology that may provide the next generation of clean, green power. Whether it's algae, wind, biomass, geothermal or some improvement on an existing technology, supposed saviors are always around the corner. Into this fraught landscape, enter nano flakes -- a semiconductor nanostructure that may point the way for the next generation of solar-cell energy production.

Nano flakes are the work of Dr. Martin Aagesen, a researcher at the University of Copenhagen. In 2007, Aagesen claimed that he "discovered a perfect crystalline structure" that could allow the harvesting of 30 percent of solar energy directed at a surface [source: Science Daily].

Currently, solar panels, at best, are only able to convert about 15 to 20 percent of sunlight into energy [source: Science Daily]. That inefficiency contributes to the relatively high cost of solar energy production compared to other dirtier forms of energy like coal. More solar panels have to be used (and more silicon used in panel production and more real estate taken up by arrays of panels) to gather an equivalent amount of energy.

Aagesen founded a company called SunFlake to develop products based on his discovery. He promises that solar-cell efficiency will be boosted because energy will have shorter distances to travel within the cell and that his panels will be cheaper by using less silicon.

His nano flake technology distinguishes itself by its promises of greater efficiency but also by its structure. Silicon that is arranged in a pure crystalline structure normally doesn't conduct electricity well. That's why most silicon-based solar panels have impurities built in -- to allow electrons to move around and fill in gaps, creating an electric field. (For more details about the structure of a traditional solar panel, read How Solar Cells Work.)

But while Aagesen's discovery received a brief flurry of publicity in 2007, there are some skeptics. For one, the technology is very much in a prototype phase, and little has been heard of it since its initial announcement. As one commentator pointed out, Aagesen produced a highly efficient light collector -- not a fully functioning solar panel that converts light photons to moving electrons (in other words, to energy) [source: Westenhaus]. He still has a long way to go before creating a bleeding-edge, functioning solar array.