The amorphous solar cell: A better way to plug into the sun?
If electricity, which adds so much comfort and convenience to your life, soon comes inexpensively from the roof of your house, you can probably thank one man. He is Stanford R. Ovschinsky, who, in the face of a worldwide ''it can't be done'' mentality, began developing a totally different type of photovoltaic (electricity from the sun) cell back in 1960.Skip to next paragraph
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Now, almost a quarter of a century later, Mr. Ovschinsky and his principal backer, the Standard Oil Company of Ohio, say that the dream of cheap power from the sun is about to be realized on a broad scale.
Similar promises have been made before, and one by one they have failed to materialize. But this time it will be different, Ovschinsky believes, because a system for mass production of the new cells has been developed and tested in Japan. Ovschinsky's company, Energy Conversion Devices Inc. of Troy, Mich., found in Japan, as he puts it, the investors ''who were prepared to take the critical risk.''
All that remains to make this type of solar energy competitive with oil or nuclear generation is the establishment of larger fabricating facilities. With Standard Oil's backing, that, too, is apparently about to happen.
Construction on two United States facilities, one in Michigan, another in Ohio, is to begin soon; both are projected to become operational by the end of 1984.
At a time when dollar-a-gallon gasoline seemed more remote than the 21st century to most people, Ovschinsky foresaw the fuel crunch that, in his view, was inevitable. He decided to do something about it.
Specifically, he sought to develop a technology that would eliminate the need to use fuel oil in electric-power generation. To do this he would have to make solar electricity competitive with the conventionally generated commodity. That, in turn, meant developing a totally new type of solar cell that could be produced at a fraction of the cost of the silicon-crystal cells that were the heart of the photovoltaic industry.
Indications are that he has done just this. The Japanese facility has been producing his new amorphous, or noncrystalline, cells 20 hours a day throughout much of 1983.
Power from the sun that is nonpolluting and as cheap as the conventionally generated product could be as close as 1987 or '88, according to the company's analysis.
In 1960, Ovschinsky believed that if an amorphous cell could be developed, it would be the key to much cheaper electricity from the sun. Single-crystal silicon has to be ''grown'' slowly, a process that consumes considerable energy and is limited to a maximum size of about 6 inches in diameter. Afterward the crystal is cut into thin wafers that form the individual solar cells. In contrast, the amorphous, or randomly mixed, silicon can be rapidly formed into an ultrathin continuous film, using very little energy. As a result, amorphous cells are far less costly to produce. They can also be turned out in much larger sizes and shapes than is possible by the old method.