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IBM strengthens solar with a cub-scout trick?

223356_magnifying_glass.jpgIt was only a matter of time before the big tech firms started to realise that without electricity, there ain’t no interwebby.

Greenbang started reading about IBM’s clean-tech investments last year. Word on the street is that this has been ready for some time, but they’ve just announced it – perhaps that’s all part of some kind of campaign and timing thing. Who knows?

Anyway – it’s good. And it’s big.

IBM’s has a new idea for improving the production of solar-powered energy.

Remember that cub scout thing where you used a magnifiying glass to concentrate sunlight to set fire to a piece of paper and your enemies? You wouldn’t if you were a brownie and into making daisy chains. (For all non-UK reader, ignore that last sentence.)

Well IBM has taken that principle and applied it to photovoltaic cells and says it could dramatically increase the amount of energy produced.

The IBM scientists are using a large lens to concentrate the sun’s power, capturing about 230 watts in a centimetre-square solar cell. That energy is then converted into 75 watts of usable electrical power, about five times the energy captured by typical cells used in solar farms.

IBM says the cells could be produced in commercial quantities for $2 (£1) each or even less.

So is it time for a smartie party? IBM seems to think so:

Solar cells use many of the same materials, processes, and underlying science that go into making computer chips, so IBM sees the move in this area as a natural progression from its traditional business.

This was particularly so when it came to controlling excessive heat on the cells. Concentrating the equivalent of 2000 suns on such a small area generates enough heat to melt stainless steel, something the researchers experienced first hand in their experiments. But by borrowing innovations from its own R&D in cooling computer chips, the team was able to cool the solar cell from greater than 1600 degrees Celsius to just 85 degrees Celsius.

This was done by coupling a commercial solar cell to an IBM liquid metal thermal cooling system using methods developed for the microprocessor industry. They used a thin layer of a liquid metal made of a gallium and indium compound that they applied between the chip and a cooling block. Such layers, called thermal interface layers, transfer the heat from the chip to the cooling block so that the chip temperature can be kept low.

Rah – so that’s that. Come on other tech firms – keep up, get those knees up…

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