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Israeli Nanotech Invention Provides Green Electricity

By David Shamah December 24, 2007

In life, it's usually the big things that get our attention. But sometimes, says Barry Breen, it's the small things that end up making a big difference in our lives. And in the case of Breen's company, Jerusalem-based Orionsolar, we're talking real small. Nano small.

Orionsolar's nanotechnology based solar power cells could have a big impact - on energy conservation, global warming, and your home electric bill. In fact, the company's innovative developments in the area of solar technology will change not only the way you and I get our electrical power, according to Breen; but also bring the magic of electricity to people who, until now, have never had the opportunity to turn the lights on in their own homes.

As oil prices rapidly make their way to the $100 per barrel mark, and global warming becomes more of a concern than ever, developing economically feasible alternatives to fossil fuels has become a scientific priority. Solar energy, especially for the production of electricity, is among the more popular and commercially developed alternative energy systems on the market. Governments around the world provide incentives to encourage citizens to install solar electricity production systems.

Current popular systems consist of large photovoltaic solar panels on rooftops, which use silicon to convert the sun's rays. In a typical setup, your system produces power, which is then channeled into the local electrical grid, and integrates with the juice produced by oil and coal. You get a usage credit for the power you produce, and in some places, the company will pay you if your system produces more electricity than you use.

But don't run out and buy a solar system just yet, says Breen; electricity produced by solar systems is still more expensive than power produced by traditional oil and coal sources, coming in at roughly four times the cost of fossil-fuel based electricity.

"Solar based systems still need to be subsidized by governments, because the solar systems now in use aren't quite there yet," he told ISRAEL21c.

But Breen aims to change that with little nano-sized cells, coated with an organic dye engineered to react when hit by sunlight to produce energy more efficiently, effectively, and cheaply, than current solar systems. The system includes cells consisting of titanium oxide layers coated with the organic dye and connected to a battery.

The key is in the nano-sized chunks of titanium oxide. "At sizes as small as 10 nanometers, the laws of physics take some interesting turns," says Breen. "We have discovered that when light hits titanium oxide particles of this size coated with our dye, a great deal of energy is produced. It's like photosynthesis. Just as a plant produces nourishment for itself when exposed to sunlight, our cells produce energy, converted to electricity."

The energy produced by the reaction is shunted into a charge controller, and then transferred to a battery, where it is stored. Orionsolar's system, he says, is more efficient, since the dye technology can be used even under low lighting situations, guaranteeing a greater power yield as it continues to gather energy even during the early morning or late afternoon hours. And Orionsolar's dye cell system produces power much more cheaply; module production costs are about half that of silicon photovoltaics, while the cost to put up a manufacturing line is a small fraction of those of silicon based photovoltaic systems, he adds.

Breen, who has a degree in nuclear engineering, began managing Orionsolar half a year ago, guiding the company's dozen employees into perfecting the innovative technology, which was developed in coordination with Bar Ilan University. It's been patented, and according to Breen, it's almost ready for prime time.

BIU's Prof. Arie Zaban, head of the university's Center for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, invented new ways to more efficiently link together the nano-sized cells to create a large single energy gathering cell, thus increasing the efficiency of the collection system. His discoveries, originally found to work with glass substrates, work with flexible plastic substrates, as well. That innovation, combined with work by Orionsolar's founder Dr. Jonathan Goldstein on the dye cell technology, led Orionsolar to the development of its unique solar systems.

The aim, says Zaban, is to reduce costs. "Cost is an important factor in the success of any solar technology," he explained. "To become widely adopted, solar cells must generate electricity at lower cost than what we now spend on fossil fuels. At the same time, we have to make the basic infrastructure extremely affordable, because the Third World countries that stand to reap the most benefit from solar power usually lack the money to invest in it. By making cells more efficient and keeping material costs down, nano-based techniques are moving us closer to that goal."

Orionsolar won't be competing with the electric company head on, not at first. Instead, Breen says his company will attempt to take on electrification projects that perhaps no other private company would even consider - to provide electricity for homes and businesses in the Third World where the electrical grid still does not reach, and probably never will.

It's a huge market, says Breen, consisting of billions of people in Asia, Africa, and South America. Breen believes that a home system providing enough electrical capacity to run lights and small appliances could be produced using the dye cell based solar systems Orionsolar will manufacture and sell for a few hundred dollars - far less than the amount needed for a silicon based solar system.

"Of course, even that amount is out of reach for most villagers in the Third World," Breen says, and the only way they will be able to get the systems is through grants, either from their own governments or international aid agencies. But the company has been in touch with governments and organizations, including the European Union, that provide assistance to places like India and Brazil, and he says that officials have shown a great deal of interest in his system. Bottom line: Orionsolar's system is the cheapest, best chance billions of people in the Third World will ever have to get electricity in their homes, he says.

Orionsolar's systems, which should be commercially available within a year, will be manufactured in Israel, with almost all production geared for the company's Third World electrification project, Breen says. However, he says, the company will be happy to sell to anyone.

"We've gotten interest from people in the US, in isolated areas of the West, for vacation homes or mountain hideaways," he says.

Could Orionsolar's system eventually compete economically with fossil-fuel based electricity? "The magic number is 10 cents a kilowatt-hour, about a quarter of what residential rooftop silicon systems cost today," he says.

Right now, Breen says, electric company electricity is cheaper. But as production ramps up, the unit cost of each dye cell will fall, and since there really is only one direction for the cost of fossil fuels to go - up - the day may be near when larger scale dye cell solar systems become de rigueur on rooftops in the US and Europe. Regardless, Breen says, as the world realizes that it has to deal with global warming, policymakers will come up with ways to incorporate solar systems into their energy production spectrum, and Orionsolar will be there with the cheapest, most efficient system on the market.

And rooftop solar systems are just the beginning; dye cell solar technology could eventually be added to products, like consumer electronics - similar to those solar-rechargeable calculators, but with all the added power of nanotechnology. Orionsolar is checking out that market, and the first product to be equipped with dye-cell solar is likely to be solar-powered garden lights. After that, who knows? A walkman that never needs batteries? Ditto for cell phones? Regardless, says Breen, the nanotechnology revolution is here, and thanks to it, we may end up paying a lot less for electricity.

Israel21C is a not-for-profit corporation organized under the laws of California that works with existing institutions and the media to inform Americans about 21st century Israel, its people, its institutions and its contributions to global society. Israel21C creates, aggregates and broadly disseminates high-quality information to the American public about the Israel that exists beyond the pervasive imagery of conflict that characterizes so much of western media reporting. Our goal is to strengthen the vibrant and enduring partnership between the United States and Israel, and between Americans and Israelis.