IMAGE: SOLAR WAFER
BP Solar
A worker at BP Solar’s plant near Madrid, Spain, assembles a silicon wafer.
msnbc.com
updated 6/28/2006 11:57:52 AM ET 2006-06-28T15:57:52

Calling it a radical approach that could make solar power more affordable, energy giant BP and the California Institute of Technology announced a five-year research program to store silicon, a building block for photovoltaic cells, in microscopic tubes instead of traditional ingots and wafers.

In a joint statement, the partners said the project "could open the door to a radical new way of producing solar cells, making the cost of solar electricity more competitive and increasing current efficiency levels."

"BP and Caltech will explore a concept based on growing silicon by creating arrays of nanorods rather than by casting ingots and cutting wafers, which is the current conventional way of producing solar cells," the statement said. "Nanorods are small cylinders of silicon that can be 100 times smaller than a human hair and would be tightly packed in an array like bristles in a brush.

"A solar cell based on an array of nanorods will be able to efficiently absorb light along the length of the rods by collecting the electricity generated by sunlight more efficiently than a conventional solar cell," the partners added.

Caltech scientists Nate Lewis and Harry Atwater will head the program.

Lewis' group will study using nanotechnology to build nanorods and related devices called nanowires.

"Nanotechnology can offer new and unique ways to make solar cell materials that are cheaper yet could perform nearly as well as conventional materials," Lewis said in the statement.

BP is already a major player in the solar industry, employing 2,000 people at BP Solar and operating facilities in the United States and Europe.

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