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Solar panels to go 3D

Solar panels firm uses 3D technologies from fiber optics to create more efficient solar panels.

April 25, 2011

Seth Lucas and Sam Schwarz (left) install solar panels on the roof of the South Coast Food Share pantry in Myrtle Point, Ore. on April 5, 2011. But traditional panels can lose a third of the sunlight. By using 3D technology, Solar3D claims it could capture nearly 100 percent of that sunlight.

Benjamin Brayfield/The World/AP/File

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By Trevor Curwin, Special to CNBC.com

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With the solar energy industry booming, companies large and small continue to look for ways to squeeze efficiencies out of decades-old technology. So why not 3D technology?

Santa Barbara-based startup Solar3D wants to harness concepts found elsewhere in high tech to increase the capture of more of the sun’s energy hitting solar panels and turning it into electricity.

“Our inspiration comes from fiber optics,” says Solar3D CEO Jim Nelson. “They manage the light to make it do what they want it to do, versus [flat] solar [panels] that just takes it as it comes.”

Though the first solar photovoltaic PV panels were installed in the U.S. in 1970s, the majority of systems installed today don't look that much different: flat-glass panels pointed at the best possible angle toward the sun.

That surface, however, means sunlight photons can pass through only once — and either hit an energy-generating cell or miss it, thus passing though unused.

Nelson says his firm’s technology uses 3D microcells that trap sunlight, allowing those photons to “bounce around” until they are all converted into electricity.

“We’re plugging the leak in [solar-panel] efficiency through absorption,” he says, “We believe our Solar3D cell can deliver an unprecedented level of cost and conversion efficiency.”

The firm’s idea has some admirers and potential customers.

“I find the concept intriguing,” says Bill Mazotti, solar technology business unit director for National Semiconductor, adding that the “tremendous pressures on costs” of solar energy make any potential increase in efficiency welcome.

Various industry estimates show that about a third of the sunlight is lost to reflection. Nelson claims Solar3D’s technology could collect nearly 100 percent of that sunlight and convert it to power.

But even with that potential level of efficiency, sector analysts point out that solar power innovation is happening on a lot of fronts, meaning any startup will face headwinds.

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