Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Two-Dimensional Graphene May Revolutionize Solar Power Technology

By Marc AlessiPublished February 18, 2015

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The solar power industry may undergo a large scale revolution. It's already the fastest growing energy source, and now, with new advancements in technology, solar power could be twice as effective as pre-2015 energy technologies. If this new technology is pursued, a sudden shift in the way a civilization harnesses energy would occur, drastically reducing pollution levels from fossil fuel consumption and ending humanity's contribution to global climate change.
It's 2015, and the solar power industry is about to get a huge boost in production, thanks in part to new advancements in renewable resource technology.  The technology is called graphene, a material theoretical physicists speculated to be impossible at room temperature.  However, in 2004 scientist Andre Geim isolated this two-dimensional material, the first to ever be discovered.  It was the supposed graphene, an atom-thick layer of carbon that developed into a lattice of hexagons.  When the discovery was published in Science in October of 2004, scientists were astonished.  "It was as if science fiction had become reality," said Youngjoon Gil, the Executive Vice President of the Samsung Institute of Technology.  The substance can be anywhere from 40 to 100 times stronger than steel and a fraction of its weight.  The possibilities of its applications are endless; scientists from all fields such as physics, electrical engineering, chemistry, and medicine have jumped on their chance to get a hold of graphene.  The atomically thin graphene has pushed the scientific world into a new era and now has the potential to revolutionize the solar power industry.



Solar energy is the fastest growing energy source in the United States.  In fact, the country receives enough sunlight to produce 100 times our annual energy demand.  However, today's silicon-based solar power panels are only able to capture 30 percent of the sun's energy.  Once graphene is commercialized, this number would double to 60 percent, a significant and vital improvement in the solar industry.  The first study to use graphene as a photovoltaic cell, something that captures the sun's light and converts it to energy, was performed at the Institute of Photonic Sciences in Barcelona, Spain.  The study found that for each photon of sunlight graphene absorbs, more than one electron is produced.  This generates far more electricity than the 1:1 ratio of photons to electrons silicon photovoltaic cells produce in the present.  More electricity produced per solar panel will result in a solar industry boom unlike any other the world has seen.


Since 1972, the cost of one watt from solar power has dropped from $75 to $1.  If graphene is commercialized, this number could drop significantly, boosting the solar industry to outcompete fossil fuels.  No longer would the world have to deal with pollution and energy production that leads to climate change. 


Of course, there are still some issues with the production of graphene.  Unfortunately, no effective methods have been found to develop graphene in large sheets, which would be important for solar power panels.  Luckily, electro-chemical methods are currently being developed to produce graphene in large quantities.  Coming in at $500 per gram, graphene is very expensive, and would not be cost effective in the solar industry.


Graphene could be the future of the solar industry.  Scientists from all over the world are working diligently to unlock the latest secrets behind this new two-dimensional technology.  Although there are many setbacks in the present, the future looks promising- if one day solar power panels are able to harness 60 percent of the sun's light, renewable energy would take over and we would no longer be bound to pollution- and climate change-causing fossil fuel energies.  The world is entering a new energy era with advancements in technology as its driving force.