In the coming alternative energy wars, there will be plenty of contenders—biofuels, wind power, solar, etc.—competing for the attention of both innovators and investors. But solar power just took a big step out in front: Researchers at Ohio State University just stumbled upon a material that could absorb almost all of the sun's energy. Current solar cells have about 7-40 percent absorption efficiency.
Best of all, the researchers discovered this near-magical material by accident: The hybrid of plastics, molybdenum, and titanium came about when the scientists involved used supercomputers to determine possible theoretical molecular configurations. As an unintended side effect, they created a material capable of siphoning off energy from solar-charged electrons 7 million times longer than traditional solar cells.
Don't cut your power cables and go off the grid just yet, though. Researchers only created a few molecules of the stuff, and it'll take several years to bring down costs and create the national, broad-based infrastructure required to pipeline the alternative energy to your home.
For additional commentary and help decoding the science-y jargon, I went to the most reputable solar source I know: My dad, Ed Alvarez, a polymer chemist who built a solar-powered, off-the-grid cabin himself. Here's what he had to say:
"The challenge remains to make enough of it to make commercially available. Sometimes the scientists discover stuff that looks great in the lab but it is hard to reproduce in industrial/commercial quantities, and when done is way to expensive.
But hell, if they could cook one material up that takes you from current proven 18% efficiency to 50% that would be a great breakthrough, as you could make it affordable.
The other component that is needed is for the governments of each state to force the utilities to continue to buy renewable energy solar credits so that it is feasible for the consumers to install the systems."
You tell 'em, Dad. Fight the power for power!