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Magnified view of a cross section of the compound Cu2ZnSn(S,Se)4

Following is a guest post from Dr. Thomas Theis:

IBM’s launch of Power 7 systems has generated significant media attention this week. While IBM’s investments in materials research, nanotechnology, manufacturing and chip design are paying off in bringing new, innovative products to market, IBM is also applying that expertise to areas you may not be aware of.

For example, today, the scientific journal Advanced Materials published a paper detailing a breakthrough in solar research by IBM scientists. IBM researchers have created a high-efficiency solar cell that holds potential to produce more energy at a lower cost, as it is made of earth abundant materials.

solar cell chip

Solar cell in a working device

The quest to develop a solar technology that can compare on a cost per watt basis with the conventional electricity generation, and also offer the future ability to deploy at the hundreds of gigawatts or greater levels, has become a major challenge that this breakthrough moves us closer to overcoming. IBM does not plan to manufacture solar technologies, but is open to partnering with solar cell manufacturers to demonstrate the technology.

The key part of this solar cell, which is the layer that absorbs most of the light for conversion into electricity, is made entirely with abundant and readily available materials Copper (Cu), Tin (Sn), Zinc (Zn), Sulfur (S) and/or Selenium (Se) and performs at a power conversion efficiency of 9.6 percent, which is 40 percent higher than previous attempts to create a solar cell made of similar materials. Other solar cells which perform at similar efficiency levels are comprised of materials that have been either too costly to produce or contain elements that could limit production capacity, or have poor prospects for further improvements in efficiency, making commercialization and wide usage less likely.

IBM has a long history of pioneering advanced silicon technologies to help enhance performance, while reducing size and power consumption. Such advances include the development of the world’s first copper-based microprocessor; silicon-on-insulator (SOI), a technology that reduces power consumption and increases performance by helping insulate the millions of transistors on a chip; and strained silicon, a technology that “stretches”  material inside the silicon decreasing the resistance and speeding the flow of electrons through transistors.

Similarly, IBM Research is applying its chip, materials and nanotechnology expertise in other areas. Consider the following:

  • DNA sequencing – In an effort to build a nanoscale DNA sequencer, IBM scientists are drilling nano-sized holes in computer-like chips and passing DNA strands through them to read the information contained within their genetic code. IBM Research has received an “Advanced Sequencing Technology Award” from the US National Human Genome Research Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health, to design a silicon-based DNA Transistor that will advance genome sequencing technology and generate progress in health care diagnosis and practice. This advanced research effort to demonstrate a silicon-based “DNA Transistor” could help pave the way to read human DNA easily and quickly, generating advancements in health condition diagnosis and treatment. The challenge in the effort is to slow and control the motion of the DNA through the hole so the reader can accurately decode what is in the DNA.  If successful, the project could improve throughput and reduce cost to achieve the vision of personalized genome analysis at a cost of $100 to $1,000. In comparison, the first sequencing ever done by the Human Genome Project (HGP) cost $3 billion.
  • Water purification – Scientists at IBM Research, together with collaborators from Central Glass, KACST and the University of Texas, Austin have created a new membrane that filters out salts as well as potentially harmful toxins in water such as arsenic while using less energy than other forms of water purification. Membrane filtration is currently one of the most energy efficient techniques for removing salt and improving water quality. But, conventional membranes used today are easily damaged by chlorine, which is commonly added to water to prevent bacterial growth that can cause health problems. Now, the collaborative research team has designed a new concept in membrane materials that combines resistance to chlorine damage and high performance separation behavior in mildly basic conditions, making it suitable for arsenic removal in addition to water desalination
  • Medical diagnostics – IBM scientists, in collaboration with the University Hospital of Basel in Switzerland, have created a one-step point-of-care-diagnostic test, based on an innovative silicon chip, that requires less sample volume, is significantly faster, portable, easy to use, and can test for many diseases, including one of world’s leading causes of death, cardiovascular disease. The results are so quick and accurate that a small sample of a patient’s serum or blood, could be tested immediately following a heart attack, to enable the doctor to quickly take a course of action to help the patient survive. The diagnostic test uses capillary forces to analyze tiny samples of serum, or blood, for the presence of disease markers, which are typically proteins that can be detected in people’s blood for diagnostic purposes.

As IBM focuses on building a smarter planet, at IBM Research we are looking at new ways to apply our expertise to help solve some of the big issues of our time. Oftentimes, this involves collaborating with other leading institutions. We are excited by the possibilities of what we can do when we look at a problem with new lenses and think of new ways to solve it. Today’s solar breakthrough is a good example.

Dr. Thomas Theis is Director of Physical Sciences at IBM’s T.J. Watson Research Lab in Yorktown Heights, N.Y.

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September 2, 2010
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August 25, 2010
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August 9, 2010
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August 9, 2010
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August 2, 2010
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So glad that IBM has found a way to make commercialization and wide usage likely to help make the solar movement advance in the near future.

Posted by: | Solar Spot Lights Outdoor
July 28, 2010
11:36 pm

That’s good to see, as i’ve heard silicon will start to get harder and harder to find and produce in the near future.

Posted by: solar power cost
July 27, 2010
4:47 pm

Great to see that IBM is in the race for green power. Less coal, less gaz and less nuclear plant!

Posted by: Mia Dey
July 27, 2010
12:27 am

It’s nice to see IBM using more common materials for solar cells. The barrier for entry in solar power for many people is the initial cost of the system. If IBM can increase efficiency while keeping costs low may allow more people to participate in solar power.

Posted by: Mark Stewart
July 26, 2010
8:21 pm

I am happy to hear that this leading company is trying to make solar power more affordable for people. Finally a person can learn that this power is going to be the future then we can finally leave the dependence on imported energy or adding more pollutants to the environment.

Posted by: Solar Power Lover
July 26, 2010
8:01 pm

I agree to an extent that driving down the cost of solar technology is crucial to rolling it out on people’s homes. However, in South Africa the main obstacle we face to viable decentralised solar PV generation is government regulation. The government is dragging its feet in releasing new regulations to make feeding back into the grid legal.

Posted by: Richard
July 26, 2010
12:10 pm

I can’t believe that after all this time, solar power is not as affordable as it could be. I applaud companies like IBM for working on technology that lowers the cost of solar power. Personally, I am implemneting as much alternative energy into my daily life as possible. I hope others will start doing the same.

Posted by: solar powered lighting expert
July 26, 2010
1:22 am

With BP counting the cost of the oil spill for years to come which I suspect would lead to a reduction of investment dollars into their solar business. I think this is the perfect opportunity for IBM to step forward and flex their solar muscle with both nano and macro technologies.

Posted by: Stan the Owner Builder
July 24, 2010
11:14 pm

This sounds great if it can get the prices down it will convince people this is the way to move forward on solar
Also reading about the improved medical diagnostics treatment for cardiovascular disease wow what a big step I have had this
disease and if you can pin point the cause quickly the treatment can be made easier for the doctor.

Posted by: Solar the Lights Domain
July 24, 2010
12:12 pm

Development of PV absorbers made from earth abundant materials that also happen to improve efficiency and lower the cost per watt is exactly the kind of news that the solar\renewable energy communities have been hungry for. Grid connected pv installations in 2009 were 76% greater than in 2008, with most of those installations being residential. Improvements in the technology should only serve to increase the number of installations going forward. I still don’t understand why governments are not doing far, far more to develop solar resources; they are the future of energy, I think.

Posted by: Jim
July 24, 2010
11:16 am

Research like this is exactly what we on the cutting edge of solar installation need to hear. We are installing solar products day in and day out and need this kind of encouragement.

I hear of so many “potential” improvements, but until I see the actual products arriving to the market I remain skeptical. The path from lab to rooftop is long and treacherous.

Still, this announcement makes me excited! Anything that will drive down the cost of solar like this would deserves rapid development!

Thanks for the article!

Posted by: Randy Velker
March 3, 2010
1:03 am

Yes, it is very powerful tool and chip set that is recently come in to existence by IBM, I have heard about it several time but never see it by open eye..

Posted by: Astin
February 25, 2010
12:14 am

From the concern article,I like the pioneering inventions of IBM which helps the technology terms in good way.I want to highlight the term regarding the DNA sequencing and its functions which work with the help of the solar related energies.Its true that IBM gives the good and advanced technologies to find some interesting points regarding newer technologies.The upcoming problem will be easily solved with such proper technologies with the regard of the proper estimations.

Posted by: smart lipo
February 19, 2010
11:15 am

Stan, you are right… what will be key for real value in every home generating it’s own power – and returning it to the grid – is a smart grid network.

Posted by: Adam Christensen
February 19, 2010
10:09 am

Great advance.
IBM solar collection technology should be designed for installation on roofs of homes since homes collectively are more extensive and closest to users than centralized solar systems. Excess electricity could be fed back to the electric power network.
This approach would avoid building expensive and massive solar collect systems in deserts and other remote areas which are mostly in lower latitudes.

Posted by: Stan Doore
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August 16, 2014
1:13 pm

كيف تجعل شخص يحبك بجنون

Smarter Utilities Archives « Page 6 of 8 « A Smarter Planet Blog A Smarter Planet Blog

Posted by: كيف تجعل شخص يحبك بجنون
April 7, 2012
6:30 am

[...] “Other solar cells which perform at similar efficiency levels are comprised of materials that have been either too costly to produce or contain elements that could limit production capacity, or have poor prospects for further improvements in efficiency, making commercialization and wide usage less likely,” said Thomas Theis, director of physical sciences at IBM’s T.J. Watson Research Lab, in a blog post. [...]

Posted by: IBM boosts solar cell made of abundant materials
June 21, 2011
2:55 am

[...] is comprised of copper, tin, zinc, sulfur and/or selenium, according to IBM’s Smarter Planet blog. Because these elements are earth-abundant, this type of solar cell could see wide [...]

Posted by: IBM’s New Thin
April 20, 2010
3:52 pm

[...] IBM Research Solving New Problems with Chip, Materials, and Nanotech Expertise | A Smarter Planet Bl… [...]

Posted by: Xbox 360 E74 System–RIP 360?
February 15, 2010
1:10 pm

[...] For more information on this announcement, go to IBM’s Smarter Planet blog [...]

Posted by: IBM’s High-Efficiency Solar Cell Made from Abundant Materials | TibTV
February 12, 2010
12:07 pm

[...] is not trying to get into the solar cell production business. They are looking to license the basic [...]

Posted by: IBM works the cost side of the solar cell problem - SmartPlanet
February 11, 2010
12:39 pm

[...] giant IBM has been hard at work developing a new solar thin-film technology. The objective: made moderately efficient solar film [...]

Posted by: Solar Power Rundown for Thursday, February 11 | Blog
February 11, 2010
12:23 pm

[...] “Other solar cells which perform at similar efficiency levels are comprised of materials that have been either too costly to produce or contain elements that could limit production capacity, or have poor prospects for further improvements in efficiency, making commercialization and wide usage less likely,” said Thomas Theis, director of physical sciences at IBM’s T.J. Watson Research Lab, in a blog post. [...]

Posted by: IBM boosts solar cell made of abundant materials | penlau software
February 10, 2010
1:43 pm

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