Saudi Arabia has no intention of falling out of power when its oil runs out, which is why the kingdom has backed a potentially “game-changing” solar cell project in Canada. Already the Gulf country has diversified its energy portfolio by building solar energy projects such as the 500-kilowatt plant located on Farasan Island – a sure sign that its leaders are preparing for peak-oil, which is expected to affect the world population as soon as next year.
But if we have any chance of off-setting the worst effects of climate change and saving our species from extinction, solar technology has to outstrip the cost and convenience of fossil fuels and nuclear. Canada Research Chair in nanotechnology Ted Sargent has persuaded Saudi that his postage stamp-sized solar cells have significant potential. The kingdom is so convinced, in fact, they have given him $10 million to perfect this tiny technology, which is painted with quantum dots.
Cutting out coal
The Middle East and North Africa have enough solar energy to power the world three times over, but tapping into that energy is not so easy. At the recent Desertec Conference in Cairo, we discovered that Concentrated Solar Power technology which requires water to cool its turbines is completely inappropriate for water-scarce environments, and the cost of developing photovoltaic and other solar technology is slowing down the process of implementing these technologies quickly enough to mitigate the effects of carbon emissions in our atmosphere.
But according to the Vancouver Sun, Sargent’s solar cell could change all of that. For a maximum of $20, he and his research team can apply a special paint containing quantum dots on as much as 3.28 square feet of solar cells. When the sun hits the electrons present in this paint, it excites them, creating energy.
PhD student Illan Kramer told the paper that they are able to manipulate the cells to optimize their performance. “By changing their size, we can change the colour and type of light they absorb,” he said. Nor is the team restricted to harvesting energy from visible light, since the quantum dots are excited by energy in infrared light as well, from which half of the earth’s solar energy is sourced.
Harvesting solar contact
This project does not come without drawbacks. At present the cells are only able to capture energy from roughly 6% of the light that bounces off them. This is partly because the energy created needs an appropriate exit that is prevented by any kind of impurity or space, creating a blockage.
Although an improvement from the 0% of energy harvested when Sargent first conceived this idea several years ago, it won’t be a genuine game-changer until the postage stamp sized cell is able to use at least 10% of the energy with which it comes into contact.
Saudi’s energy hegemony
After that, the applications of this technology are nearly limitless. Sargent told the Vancouver Sun that it sees a future in which electronics, cars and rooftops will be coated with this special paint, and even wide swaths of desert. Saudi has recently announced plans to license this technology, presumably to maintain its hegemony in the energy world.
This time, they won’t be looking to fossil fuels to maintain the wealth behind such absurd projects as the world’s newest tallest tower. They’ll be peering into the sun instead.