Sunday, 14 March 2010

The innovator: Matthias Kauer

The 39-year-old inventor who created a solar cell that can generate 100 times more power than an ordinary cell

Lucy Siegle
The Observer, Sunday 14 March 2010
"Small is beautiful" is a longstanding eco mantra – and its latest example is a stamp-sized incarnation of the solar panel. Even with its minute proportions, the new solar cell generates three to four times the amount of power (10-12 watts) that a conventional cell could at the same size. "But the real point," explains Matthias Kauer of the Sharp Solar Research & Development Laboratory, "is that once you add in a comparatively cheap bit of kit like a lens, this tiny cell can then generate 100 times more power than an ordinary cell."
It's exactly the power surge solar photovoltaic panels need. PV panels use a thin layer of semi-conducting material, usually silicon, to generate an electric charge when exposed to sunlight. They are often derided, the assumption being that they don't generate a useful amount of energy, but Dr Kauer is quick to point out that even the average panel is 15 to 20 times more efficient at converting solar energy than plants.
His solar cell is superior still. It's already 35.8% efficient in sunlight, and he's confident that in future years that can increase to 50%. At the heart of the pint-sized innovation is the new material in the cell. The day the research team found the right proportions of indium gallium arsenide nitride, the super cell began to come together. "Those breakthrough days are good," says Kauer. "I've had a couple in my 10-year career so far, and this one was major."
If only we lived in a sun-soaked country. "That's a common misconception," says Kauer. "The UK has as much sun as parts of Germany, where solar panels are commonplace." The average amount of sun hitting an area 30cm in diameter is equivalent to the power of 20,000 AA batteries. "The exciting thing is that we can keep gaining efficiency," says Kauer, "and one day have cars, planes, ships and entire cities running on free solar power." The outlook is sunny.