Winter brings snowflake solar cells — upping solar efficiency 100 times

Here we are in the dead of winter, but the most interesting snowflake around is actually all about the sun. A new technology, called the snowflake solar cell, has just debuted and is said to be 100 times more efficient than traditional solar modules. If this is true, it could mean a major about-face for the entire solar industry.

The secret behind the snowflakes? They’re smaller — a lot smaller. A standard solar cell measures about 6 square inches. The average snowflake cell is about 0.25 to 1 millimeter across and 14 to 20 micrometers thick, like a glitter or sequin particle.

Just think about how many more you could fit on the surface of a solar panel. According to the snowflake’s developer, Sandia National Laboratories, the crystalline silicon cells generate just as much energy while using 100 times less material — by far the most expensive part of any solar system.

There are several other advantages to the snowflakes. For example, if a 6 square-inch module fails on a rooftop solar panel, it will seriously detract from that panel’s productivity. If a single snowflake cell fails, there is hardly any difference in output. Also, when it comes to production, snowflakes can be made out of much of the waste resulting from silicon wafer creation. This isn’t true of the larger modules. The snowflake chips are also less vulnerable to shade, Sandia says.

The snowflakes open the door to more creative solar applications. Sandia mentions potential for weaving the cells into fabrics for eventual solar clothing, tents, car covers and bags. If the price comes down enough, the powdered cells could eventually be used to cover rooftops for bolstered solar energy generation, or even devices. What if your iPod or laptop could be covered in snowflake solar cells? You might hardly ever need to plug in.

Right now, the tiny cells are converting sunlight to energy at a consistent 14.9 percent. This is pretty promising, considering that the average solar cell has an efficiency between 13 and 20 percent. The big hurdle now is to bring the price down, and to convince other companies to incorporate the technology into their products. That’s somewhat of a chicken-and-egg problem — but the concept is so neat that it could take off fast.

Using less pricey silicon to produce the same amount of energy is a major trend in the solar industry today. Marquee companies like Solyndra, First Solar and SoloPower are all perfecting thin-film solar systems to bring down costs. Others, like Innovalight are working on solar inks — liquid-like solutions of minuscule solar cells (not unlike the snowflakes, perhaps representing some competition) that can be printed onto conductive material to generate electricity.

The snowflake solar cells are just one of many projects Sandia is tackling right now. Most of its scientific inquiries have applications for defense, nuclear nonproliferation and homeland security. But if this solar breakthrough takes off, which it seems poised to do, the company could become a more formidable force in the cleantech sector as well. This year, it received $835.8 million from the U.S. Department of Energy to do just that.