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How Nanotech Is Revolutionizing Solar Power

By GS Early on May 20, 2008

Editor’s note: For the latest information on solar power and the stock market, check out Elliott Gue’s free special report on the Best Alternative Energy Stocks to Buy Now.

My biggest issue with the whole Green Tech trend is that most people are looking for that one big solution and betting all their money on a horse that not only isn’t in the race but isn’t even born yet.

For example, the mania about thin-film solar has sent more stocks through the roof and gotten more companies Stage I, II and III financing than I care to count. The problem is thin-film solar is in its infancy and won’t be revolutionizing our world anytime soon.

Plus, the companies that are building the prototypes must stick around for another five to 10 years to even try to compete in a vibrant thin-film market. No matter what you hear in the investment world, here’s what a big solar story looks like on the science side, courtesy of a huge, breaking story on the new efficiency world record for photovoltaic (PV) cells.  

It’s an increase from 21.9 percent efficiency to 23 percent efficiency. The argument is that even such a small improvement will make a vast difference on a global scale.

But is this really cutting edge? Internal combustion engines are more efficient energy converters. But scientists are excited, so I’ll defer to them. The point is this “breakthrough” couldn’t have been accomplished without nanotechnology.

Actually, this story on nanowires and thin-film solar is much more exciting for cutting-edge solar. The problem is nothing is expected to reach the market for another decade. Again, this is why nanotech is subtly changing the world we live in through significant, fantastic ways. It’s just that the movement is relatively imperceptible by nonscientific, short-term, immediate-gratification investors.

Somewhere in between these stories is a solar news item that slides by most of the superficial solar fanatics out there. If you reverse engineer the solar power challenge, you could say that it isn’t the problem with the cell but with the lack of juice our sun puts out. It’s this kind of thinking that has made IBM’s R&D operations the gold standard in technology-related breakthroughs.

Granted, Big Blue’s product development isn’t very good. But its lab coats are doing top-shelf work.

The company is—pardon the pun—focusing on concentrator PVs (CPV) technology. And it’s showing some significant results. Using a new metal alloy, the company can dissipate the enormous heat the PVs take when subjected to concentrated sunlight.

Although the concept has been around for a few decades, new technologies have allowed CPV a new lease on life. And it seems to be paying off. As with its competing solar technologies, there’s nothing new under the sun—yet.

For investors, your best bet is a straightforward solar play such as Spire Corp or the picks-and-shovels route through investments such as microscopy company FEI Co or nanomaterials maker CVD Equipment Corp. Wait for the hype of the thin-film, high-efficiency solar to turn into reality, and stick to the boring stuff that’s in the marketplace making money for customers and investors now.

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