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.
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.