Considering that sunshine is free, solar power units are certainly expensive. The number of solar panels necessary increases the price. The batteries and the amount of space the panels use can also be prohibitively expensive. However, the University of Michigan has come up with a way to make high-grade silicon – a major component in solar panels – for much less money than previously possible.
Silicon is made from silicon dioxide, otherwise known as sand. Now, sand is pretty cheap. However, converting sand into silicon is really expensive. It takes a lot of heat, to the tune of 2000 degrees F. With current fossil fuels as the energy source for making silicon, it creates quite a bit of pollution.
However Kate McAlpine with the University says that this new process they use works at only 180 degrees! To do this, they use gallium. This is a soft metal with a melting point of room temperature. The metal is coated with silicon tetrachloride.
The process of making silicon occurs when electrons from the metal turn the silicon tetrachloride into silicon. Since the gallium has such a low melting point, room temperature is sufficient to release the electrons to interact with the silicon tetrachloride. The resulting silicon crystals, at this point, are about 1/2000th of a millimeter diameter.
There is no note of the cost of gallium in the CleanTechnica article from which this information is sourced. However, McAlpine says that there are other metal allows that have low melting points that will be tested to see if they will produce silicon. Apparently, even the use of gallium reduces the cost of silicon production enough that it is a viable alternative to the current method.
At this time, solar power is still one of the most expensive forms of alternative power for most Americans. It is somewhat cheaper in Europe, where the support structures are not as expensive. However, both continents will benefit from less expensive hardware.
Unfortunately, the commercial production of this cheap silicon is still not even in the picture. Chances are, Andrea Rossi’s E-Cat and Hot Cat units will be on the market before the solar industry is revolutionized with cheap silicon.