New Breakthrough in Solar? Maybe. Possibly. Or Not.

Back in the mid-1990’s, a proponent of solar cells tried to get me to write a feature story. The technology had already been around for decades, but it was relatively expensive and inefficient. But now, said this long-forgotten booster, thanks to a series of technological breakthroughs, “they’re on the verge of being cheaper than conventional electricity!” 

The solar industry is growing exponentially, but it still makes up just a fraction of our total energy supply. Credit: eastpole/flickr.

Fortunately, I didn’t rush out and write the story, because it was a crock. People were indeed working on raising the efficiency and lowering the cost of solar energy, and they still are. There have, by my highly subjective estimate, been scores upon scores of breakthroughs since the mid-1990s, and solar cells have indeed gotten a lot better. But they’re still not competitive with old-fashioned coal-fired or gas-fired electricity in most cases (that’s partly because energy producers don’t have to pay for the external costs of fossil energy.  It also doesn’t factor in government subsidies into the equation.

Now comes yet another purported breakthrough: a chemist at the University of Texas at Austin has found a way to double the efficiency of solar cells while cutting the costs. It involves using a plastic-based semiconductor rather than the conventional silicon. “The exciton,” says a press release from the university is coupled quantum mechanically to a dark “shadow state” called a multiexciton.” 

No, I don’t know what that means, either. What I do know is that the paper and the press release are sprinkled with the words “could and “may” and “possible” and “could” again. This is the responsible thing to do, since many, many technologies look amazing in the lab but turn out to be too hard to make work in the real world. I wrote all the way back in 1987 about an amazing breakthrough in superconductors. So far, the flying cars, and other amazing technologies I gullibly spoke about haven’t appeared. 

But that doesn’t mean this new research won’t lead to a revolution in how we generate electricity. It might. And even it if proves to be a dead end, there sometimes have to be dozens or even hundreds of dead ends before someone hits on a truly transformational technology. And if dozens or hundreds of scientists weren’t working out their own ideas in their own ways — and mostly failing — that one true breakthrough might never happen.