Glimpsing the Future of Solar Energy

One thing I like about being a science writer, and about writing a book about renewable energy, is that I get to talk with (and learn from) some of the smartest people on the planet.

For example, this morning I spoke with Michael Strano, an associate professor of chemical engineering atMIT.  After a twenty minute phone call, I came away with nothing less than a glimpse into the future of solar energy.

Strano works with carbon nanotubes–tiny, microns-wide structures that can channel atomic and subatomic particles in ways that have all sorts of industrial and technological applications.  I was interested in Strano’s work on using carbon nanotubes to enhance the absorptive power and hence efficiency of solar cells.  The science is complex, but in a nutshell in involves using carbon nanotubes as antenna or funnels to attract and channel sunlight in concentrated form onto the semiconducting surface of a solar cell.

The implications of this research are far reaching.  One of the holy grails of solar PV research is figuring out ways to make solar cells more powerful and efficient without making them more expensive.  Some solutions involve using mirrors to concentrate sunlight onto PV panels or boilers.  Strano’s method does essentially the same thing, only without the need for expensive and delicate mirrors.

Carbon nanotubes are relatively easy and inexpensive to make.  Large companies like Bayer are not manufacturing them in bulk for all sorts of commercial purposes.  PV cells enhanced with carbon nanotubes are still a ways off, but if what Strano was telling me is accurate, they’re coming.  And they very might might blaze an entirely new path in solar PV development.

You can listen to my interview with Strano here.  And learn more about Strano’s research here.

If you’d like to learn more about my book-in-progress about renewable energy, go to

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I'm a writer based in Bloomington, IN. I'm currently writing a book about renewable energy, titled "Renewable: A Reporter's Quest to Make Sense of the Coming Revolution in Alternative Energy," for St. Martin's Press.

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