NovaSolix is in the business of crossing magic lines.
Being better has its place. Newer, more advanced technologies can naturally replace older, less useful ideas. But just how much better is required to be revolutionary?
Small changes can result in large results. When the Wright brothers created a device that could generate more lift than it weighed, they invented flight. But many people had created machines that could generate lift before. The brothers crossed the magic line: more lift than weight allowed flight.
Archimedes discovered that anything placed in water tried to float, but only objects with apparent densities less than water could float. A boat that is overloaded sinks. Archimedes found the magic line: lower density than water allowed flotation.
Leo Szilard recognized that a certain Uranium isotope’s tendency to fission--spontaneously split apart while releasing neutrons--could be used to cause other Uranium atoms to fission. He realized that by carefully building a lattice of Uranium, it would be possible to capture enough neutrons from each fission event to cause a continuing cycle of fissions. This crossed another magic line and the nuclear reactor was born. Then he realized that if even more neutrons were collected another line would be crossed: the resulting runaway situation is what we know now as the Atomic Bomb.
As society advances science, specific technologies evolve and improve. Periodically they cross their own magic lines. And when these magic lines are crossed, amazing things can happen. Inventors see new ways to solve problems. Industries reform around new approaches. Consider how the Internet, cell phones, microwave ovens and HDTV have transformed our lives. And how each has enabled new, more interesting applications in areas not previously considered. That is what happens when magic lines are crossed.
NovaSolix is in the business of crossing magic lines.
The Old Way
Today’s common solar technology is based upon the photovoltaic effect that was first shown in 1839. Photovoltaic solar cells operate at the quantum level. A photon approaches an electron. If the photon has the required minimum energy, it can be absorbed by the electron that excites the electron (moving it to a higher energy state). Capturing the resulting diffused electrons creates an electric current.
The key with PV technology is that not just any photon can excite an electron. The photon needs a minimum amount of energy . That means that lower energy infrared light (about 40% of all solar energy to hit the surface of the Earth) will not generate electricity. Furthermore, only certain frequencies of light (specific colors) correspond to the energy states required to knock an electron free. And, of course, a weak light cannot excite an electron to the next higher energy state, so dim lights produce zero power in PV cells.
PV has a theoretical limit around 30% efficient. The PV cells deployed in banks on buildings and structures are typically about 20% efficient. In other words, four out of every five potential watts of solar electricity are converted to heat.
Photovoltaic technology has undergone dramatic evolution over the past five decades. Billions of dollars of R&D money and a worldwide need for economic solar power has refined the technology to the point where today’s cells are nearing the theoretical limits of output.
Many locales use economic subsidies to encourage deployment of PV technology in hopes that boosting production of PV panels will bring down the cost. The result is that PV cells are now approaching the economic lower limit of price. Unfortunately, even with today’s advanced high volume PV technology, solar power is simply not competitive with other energy sources.
The NovaSolix Way
There is another way to convert light energy into electricity. Instead of viewing light as photons, light can be viewed as waves of electromagnetic radiation—just like radio waves only at a much higher frequency. The key is to making little antennae which are roughly ¼ the wavelength of light – this captures the energy as a very high frequency alternating current and then to use a diode to convert the alternating current into usable direct current. Each tiny antenna is roughly 1 micron or 1/10,000,000th of a meter long and made from a carbon nanotube. At one end of the antenna is a diode which can operate at frequencies approach 1 PHz or 1 quadrillion cycles per second. By contrast, AM radios operate at frequencies in low megahertz or roughly a million cycles per second and ideal antennas are roughly a meter long. The difference is a factor of one billion.
The NovaSolix approach places roughly one trillion tiny radio receivers per square inch. Unlike PV cells, the NS cells are compatible with a wide range of frequencies from low infrared through visible light and up into the ultraviolet. Furthermore, the NS cells are able to convert weak light to small amounts of power. The theoretical limit on efficiency of NS cells is roughly 90% or three times the energy of a PV cell. Initial NS cells will be roughly 40% efficient, producing roughly 400 watts/square meter. Finally, due to the different underlying manufacturing process, NS cells are cheaper and lighter weight than PV cells while also being flexible.
Crossing New Lines
A higher powered, lower cost solar cell is a good thing. It will incrementally improve the economics and feasibility of solar projects around the world. However, NS cells also cross lines, enabling solutions which previously were unthinkable. Here are just a few to consider:
Consider a Tesla Model X—a state of the art electric car. Its batteries store 90 KwH and it is rated at 257 miles per charge. Recharging can take anywhere from a half hour with a ‘supercharger’ to more than overnight using a standard home outlet. As with most electric cars, the limitations of the battery seem to be the most visible to users.
If one covered a Model X with NS cells at 80% efficient, the charge effect sitting in the sun in a parking lot would be equivalent to adding 16 miles of range per hour. Each hour of sun charging translates to roughly the ability to drive 16 miles.
What does this mean to the driver? Here are a few interesting points:
For 68% of all commuters in the US, one hour of sunlight would recharge a one-way commute. Two hours would recharge a two-way commute. 88% of commuters would not need to recharge their cars with four hours of sunlight.
During the 4 hours required to drive 240 miles at 60 MPH, the NS cells could have added another 64 miles to the range of the car and delayed the need to recharge by an hour. During this additional our, an additional 16 miles of range would be added for a total of 80 miles gained. Rest stop breaks, meals and traffic slowdowns will similarly boost effective range.
During the half hour at a ‘supercharger’, the NS cells would have added 8 miles of capacity.
Most people would commute with no energy charges. In fact, many could pull power from their Tesla to energize their homes with the associated additional cost savings.
In other words, suddenly electric cars become the ideal vehicle when mated with NovaSolix technology.
A similar analysis shows that by covering a railroad boxcar with NS cells, the sun would be capable of powering the refrigeration system and still have power left over for propulsion.
Modern communications satellites are power constrained. Even with huge banks of PV cells, few modern satellites have more than 4000 or 5000 watt power envelopes. Using NS cells, the same weight of cells could result in a tenfold increase in power budget. Furthermore, since NS cells can convert infrared radiation (normally seen as heat) into power, the satellites will have less difficulty staying cool in direct sunlight.
This same approach will work with high altitude communications drones. Several companies are experimenting with the idea of solar-powered, continuously looping aircraft at the top of the atmosphere. These craft could operate much like satellites for communications services yet be more flexible, more easily upgraded and a tiny fraction of the cost. The NS tenfold power to weight advantage over PV cells could mean the difference between possible and economically feasible.
Current photovoltaic solar cells are almost good enough to revolutionize the world. Unfortunately, the laws of physics and economics argue that these solar cells will not improve enough to cross the magic lines that seem so enticingly close. However, NovaSolix’s antenna-based solar cells show promise to drop the cost of cells by a factor of five, increase power output by a factor of two initially and lower weight by another factor of five. These changes are more than enough to cross the magic lines where new solutions and applications become feasible.