TR: Silicon cells have a head-start ramping up production levels. This continues to raise the bar for new technologies, which don’t yet have economies of scale. Can a brand-new type of cell catch up to silicon?
MG: A very reputable journal [Photon Consulting] just published predictions for module prices for silicon for the next 10 years, and they go up the first few years. In 10 years, they still will be above three dollars, and that’s not competitive.
Yes, people are trying to make silicon in a different way, but there’s another issue: energy payback. It takes a lot of energy to make silicon out of sand, because sand is very stable. If you want to sustain growth at 40-50 percent, and it takes four or five years to pay all of the energy back [from the solar cells], then all of the energy the silicon cells produce, and more, will be used to fuel the growth.
And mankind doesn’t gain anything. Actually, there’s a negative balance. If the technology needs a long payback, then it will deplete the world of energy resources. Unless you can bring that payback time down to where it is with dye-cells and thin-film cells, then you cannot sustain that big growth. And if you cannot sustain that growth, then the whole technology cannot make a contribution.
TR: Why does producing your technology require less energy?
MG: The silicon people need to make silicon out of silicon oxide. We use an oxide that is already existing: titanium oxide. We don’t need to make titanium out of titanium oxide.
TR: An exciting area of basic research now is using nanocrystals, also called quantum dots, to help get past theoretical limits to solar-cell efficiency. Can dye-sensitized cells play a role in the development of this approach?
MG: When you go to quantum dots, you get a chance to actually harvest several electrons with one photon. So how do you collect those? The quantum dots could be used instead of a [dye] sensitizer in solar cells. When you put those on the titanium dioxide support, the quantum dot transfers an electron very rapidly. And we have shown that to happen.
TR: You are campaigning for increased solar-cell research funding, and not just for Grätzel cells.
MG: There’s room for everybody.
I am excited that the United States is taking a genuine interest in solar right now, after the complete neglect for 20 years. The Carter administration supported solar, but then during the Reagan administration, it all dropped down by a factor of 10. And labs like NREL [National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, CO] had a hard time surviving. But I think there is going to be more funding.