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One approach involves making the photovoltaic materials out of electrically conductive polymers and nanostructures called fullerenes, or buckyballs. When such elements were first tried as solar cells, they were grossly inefficient, converting a mere one to two percent of light energy to electricity.

In recent months, though, by rearranging the polymers and buckyballs, several research teams – led by physicist David Carroll from Wake Forest; Alan Heeger, a co-founder and chief scientist of Konarka and a Nobel Laureate at the University of California at Santa Barbara; and Yang Yang of the University of California at Los Angeles – have improved the flow of electricity, approximately doubling the material’s ability to convert light into electricity. If researchers can get the performance to double again, the material will be efficient enough to compete with traditional solar technologies.

The next step – making solar cells that can compete with fossil fuels – will mean overcoming even more obstacles. For example, one way to improve the percentage of light converted into electricity is to increase the amount light actually absorbed by the cell. According to Sean Shaheen, a solar specialist at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, CO, this could be done by creating materials that absorb more colors in the spectrum, an idea he’s currently working on.

Such research into new solar technologies is going forward in both industrial and academic labs. Its researchers are confident that it will lead to more efficient and cheaper solar-cell devices, finding more and more applications, and eventually lessening our dependence on fossil fuels.

For now, according to Konarka, solar looks good for soldiers and trendy shoppers.

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