February 23, 2009

Fool's gold promises cheaper solar

Come up with a way to make solar cells from iron pyrite -- fool's gold -- and you could have a cheap, abundant energy source.

Scientists studied the extraction costs and abundance of 23 semiconductor compounds capable of converting light to electricity and the amount of electricity photovoltaic modules made from the compounds would generate. They found that three compounds -- iron pyrite, zinc phosphide and amorphous silicon -- have lower extraction costs and greater generation potential than crystalline silicon.

Iron pyrite is particularly abundant and inexpensive to extract. This gives it the greatest potential of the 23 compounds for meeting the world's electricity needs despite being less efficient than crystalline silicon at converting light to electricity.

In general, the study found that researchers should work on developing solar cells from low-cost, abundant materials like fool's gold, and using semiconductor nanoparticles to reduce the amounts of materials used, as well as developing more efficient cells.

Research paper:
Materials Availability Expands the Opportunity for Large-Scale Photovoltaics Deployment
Environmental Science & Technology, published online February 13, 2009

Researchers' homepages:
Cyrus Wadia
Paul Alivisatos
Daniel Kammen

Related stories and briefs:
Enzyme cranks out cheap semiconductor -- related research

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