Second and Third Generation Solar

After posting last week about polysilicon and China, Robert came over to my desk and pointed out that what I wrote about is first generation solar technology.  He asked if I had looked up the developments in second and third generation solar technology. In all my reading and research on the topic of polysilicon, I had not . So he gave me some tips of what to look for, terms like thin-film solar.. which admitedly, I had never heard before. (remember I’m new!)

Some initial browsing provides interesting and encouraging information when it comes to new and better ways of harnessing the sun’s energy.  Developments like being able to roll a thin film, with a consistency similar to wallpaper, onto the roof of a house, or a wall.

Somewhere in WalesPreviously I referred to the problem of the manufacturing of first generation solar panels, polysilicon, which requires alot of energy to produce, not to mention the processing of waste.  Producing thin-film uses dramatically less raw materials than those panels, therefore less waste as well.  One example of a company involved in thin film solar technology is the German-American First Solar. Their website provides some background information as well as graphics illustrating what they are doing with thin film.

But perhaps even more encouraging is that there are more advanced methods currently being developed to further reduce the amount of energy and  the environmental impact of producing thin-film solar panels.  At the university of Arizona, researchers in the chemistry department are trying to use molecules made out of organic compounds that could make up a super thin film solar panel.  By super thin they mean 100 nanometers thick… many times thinner than human hair.  Such a breakthrough would not only make for lightweight, easy to deploy solar energy collecting material, but also the production clean and environmentally safe production of solar panels.

Polysilicon Dangers

It is no secret that solar panels are in high demand around the world, as they are looked at as a good source for renewable energy. And indeed on the surface, who could argue with the concept that our energy should come from the sun and create zero emissions in the process.

Photo Credit: ReutersBut in a recent WashingtonPost article I read about one ingredient needed to capture solar energy that I had never heard of before; Polysilcon. Now Polysilicon is apparently in 99% of electronics, and an essential component of solar panels.  Manufacturing that polysilicon creates waste, and while the process of making it requires a large amount of energy, the process of recycling the waste is yet another costly process.  And as Corpwatch and the WashingtonPost have recently pointed out, in places like China, alot of manufacturers are choosing not to do the recycling part… choosing instead to dump the waste.

As the demand for solar panels skyrockets, the value of polysilicon has gone through the roof.  The reporter at the Post refers to Chinese Polysilicon companies as the “.com’s” of China.  While business is booming, companies are cutting corners and dumping that waste wherever they can.  Land where polysilicon waste is dumped or buried becomes contimanated; nothing can grow there and people should not live nearby.

I strongly recommending reading the article for the full details.  There is definitely an issue here that needs addressing.  If solar energy is indeed one of our main sources of energy for a sustainable future, then something must be done to make sure the process of getting the tools we need to harness that energy, doesn’t wind up destroying the earth and countless lives.

Flying on Biodiesel

It was fairly well documented, back in 1998, that you could fly turboprop and propellor engine planes using biodiesel fuel. But in terms of feasability, flying commercial jet aircraft on biodiesel has always been a more difficult accomplishment.

In September of last year, Boeing announced that at some point in 2008, they would be test flying a 747 using biodiesel. The plane uses Rolls-Royce engines, which can fly on a blend of jet fuel and biodiesel.

3rd Runway at HeathrowEarlier this month Airbus announced their tests of another alternative fuel, using GTL (gas to liquid) fuel to fly the superjumbo whale known as the A380. Their GTL fuel is the result of a cooperation with Qatar petroleum. According to the company this alternative is a viable short term solution for fuel that produces lower emissions and can eventually transition to synthetic fuels made from plant material.

Then last week Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic carried out the first biofuel powered commercial airline flight, where only 1 of the 747’s 4 engines was powered by a mixture of Brazilian Babassu nuts and coconuts. However, experts from both Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace have labelled the flight as a publicity stunt and greenwashing.

Both environmental groups point to the problems of continued airport expansion and high demand for biofuel, which are already having detrimental effects on the planet and its people. Their wish is that Airbus, Boeing, and other powerful corporations investing time and energy into biofuels for air travel would shift their focus to these issues instead.

On a related and final note for today, the UN World Food Program has announced that with the significant rise in food prices this year, with their current budget, they will not be capable of stemming the tide of world hunger this year.