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Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Good news: Israeli breakthrough in solar power

More good news....
As the world continues to become more and more dependent on fossil fuels, with the US alone consuming 17 million barrels each day, the question of the future looms larger every day: What is the world going to do when oil runs out?

Solar power has usually been dismissed as a possible answer to the problem because of its high cost and relatively low efficiency. But a new type of solar power cell being developed in Israel by one of the world's foremost experts in the field promises to change that.

In Professor David Faiman's world of concentrator photovoltaic cells (CPV cells), solar power just might be the answer to the fuel dilemma.

"Traditional photovoltaic cells do two things: collect sunlight and generate electricity from it," said Faiman of Ben-Gurion University's Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research in Sde Boker. "What we've done is simply split those two functions, so that the sunlight is collected and concentrated by a dish-shaped mirror, and a small number of concentrator cells generate electricity from that highly concentrated sunlight. Photovoltaic material is far too expensive to waste on something that can be accomplished with cheap glass and steel."

Faiman's apparatus, which resembles an enormous satellite dish, rises high above his modest offices in the middle of the Negev desert. Each of the dish's mirrors can concentrate the sun's energy by a factor of about 20 before reflecting it up to the solar cells that hang suspended over the apex of the dish. When all 50 of the mirrors used for the project are uncovered (sometimes only one or two are used for testing purposes), the cells are on the receiving end of the light of a thousand suns.

The dish, which weighs about 10 tons, is wheel-mounted onto a rotating base so that it can turn around, following the sun over the course of a day. The dish's motors move it using a minute amount of the power that it generates.

A recent Faiman research paper analyzed the weather conditions in California and the southwestern United States, concluding that the economics of building concentrator solar power plants there were nothing short of phenomenal. The paper was published in a journal called Energy Policy instead of Faiman's usual Solar Energy Materials and Solar Cells because he thought that "there's more of a chance Governor Schwarzenegger will pay attention to a journal with the name Energy Policy."

"This kind of power plant will cost a little less than $1,000 per kilowatt to build, which is exactly the same as the cost of current fossil fuel plants - except that you wouldn't have to buy any fuel," Faiman told ISRAEL21c. "If the electricity were sold at Israel's going rate of nine cents per kilowatt-hour, the profit margin would be such that the entire investment in solar energy infrastructure could be paid off within twenty years. And all that while, the country could be building more solar power plants using some of the profit from existing ones."