In another sign that technological innovation will drive solutions to global warming and the United States’ energy dependence, technology born of Hewlett-Packard’s imaging and printing research will be used to make more efficient and cheaper solar panels. HP is licensing its transparent transistor technology, which will eliminate the need for mechanical trackers to follow the sun, to a Livermore, Calif., startup called Xtreme Energetics
Here’s how it’s supposed to work: XE’s solar panels concentrate sunlight onto highly efficient solar cells that use a fraction of the expensive silicon found in standard solar modules. A layer of HP’s clear transistors will funnel light to the solar cell as the sun moves across the sky.
“Basically, we don’t have any mechanical gears or cogs,” says XE chief executive Colin Williams, a veteran of JPL/Caltech and a former Stanford University professor. “From an outward appearance the panel appears to be fixed, but internally light is being steered to the solar cell through the electronics.”
Doing away with bulky mechanical trackers means that more panels can be packed onto commercial rooftops, allowing energy-hungry facilities like data centers to draw more of their power from the sun. The panels will be transparent and can be colorized to blend in with building facades. Williams says XE will also produce panels for large-scale solar power plants.
That’s the goal, at least. XE, which is currently funded by its founders, is two years away from producing solar panels with HP’s (HPQ) technology and its claim that they will be twice as efficient at half the cost of conventional solar systems has yet to be proven.
For HP, the solar licensing deal is an unanticipated benefit of collaborative research by HP Labs, engineers at its imaging and printing operation in Oregon and researchers at Oregon State University. “They were looking for future ways to display images,” say Joe Beyers, HP’s vice president of intellectual property licensing. “It just turned out that Colin and his team became aware of the work we were doing with Oregon State and started the dialog.”
Beyers says other potential applications for the technology – developed as part of HP’s new approach to commercializing R&D that my colleague Jon Fortt wrote about recently – include video displays for car windshields.