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The Next Silicon Revolution

28.09.2017 — 0

Researchers say, we are on the eve of the next silicon revolution. Read how it will affect solar energy, and how science contributes to it.

Back in 2006, Travis Bradford predicted the coming of the next silicon revolution in his book about solar energy, published by MIT Press. Bradford argument was simple: solar energy industry is now where computing has been between the 1970s and the 1980s.

First off, we don’t have time and money to try every possible alternative to fossil fuels economy. Solar energy is one of the proven alternatives with a huge potential to grow at a rate of 20–30% every year for the next 30 years. This alone should attract the world’s best and brightest talent into the field. However, solar energy must be thought of

“as an industry and economic reality rather than as a philosophical goal, encouraging a new generation of professionals to be involved”

That means, as an emerging industry not only needs bright research and development, but also talents in management, commercialization, marketing, and other more mundane fields.

The First Silicon Revolution

What happened between the 1970s and the 1980s? The global trend began with the shift from centralized mainframes to distributed and miniaturized computing. It created dramatic economic benefits for customers and made possible the invention of the PC, personal computer. Internet and broadband information followed soon. More recently, a similar change has occurred in the field of telecommunications. Landline-based networks were supplemented by mobile telephone that is much cheaper and available, since it does require the expensive installation of land-based grids.

Behind these transformations has been the silicon chip used in semiconductor and telecommunications industry. The unique physical properties of silicon semiconductors powered the information revolution that changed industries dramatically and quickly in the 1980–1990s. Because they are cheap, capacious, fast, and have a potential for miniaturization, silicon semiconductors made sure computing and telephony will go into the user’s’ hands and get personalized. As Bradford summarizes their impact,

“These tools were hard to invent but easy to use: they packed the results of decades of arcane research in basic science into tools that anybody could plug in, turn on, and operate”.

This impact of science on the development of computing industry is clearly visible in the statistics of computer science publications. Researchers from the German Trier University have assembled a complete database of publications that, plotted as a histogram, demonstrates an exponential growth curve.

At the moment we witness the same dynamics in the field of solar energy. First, the dominant technology for making solar cells involves the manufacture of silicon chips that are nearly identical to the computer chips that were used in the emerging industries of semiconductor and telecommunications back in 1980s. Second, the massive effort of science and research is being put into development of solar energy.

Solar Science and the Next Silicon Revolution

Since the invention of the first solar cell in 1954 by the Bell Labs, solar cells have been becoming cheaper and more efficient.

In the early 1950s R.S. Ohl discovered that sunlight striking a silicon wafer can produce large amounts of free electrons. This discovery laid the basis for the commercial exploitation of the photo-effect. In 1954, G.L. Pearson, C.S. Fuller, and D.M. Chapin created an array of several razor blade-sized strips of silicon and placed them under sunlight.That was the first solar battery that allowed the researchers to capture the free electrons and turn them into an electrical current. The efficiency of this battery was as low as 6% of useful energy from converted sunlight. However, the technology had a bright future ahead.

When the Bell Labs publicly demonstrated the first solar battery in action, The New York Times endorsed it, saying that solar cells would realize “one of mankind’s most cherished dreams — the harnessing of the almost limitless energy of the sun.’’

**Bell Labs engineer testing the solar panel. Picture credit: **http://www.beatriceco.com/bti/porticus/bell/belllabs_photovoltaics.html

Since then, much research and development effort has been put into harnessing the solar energy. However, it began to attract large amounts of funding and scholarly attention only relatively recently, as the climate and energy issues became sharper.

Since 1950, more than 120’000 research papers have been published in peer reviewed journals, according to Web of Knowledge database. The geographical distribution of research effort, as seen from this data, roughly reflects the value chain of photovoltaics: 27% of articles come from the US, 15% from the People’s Republic of China, 7% from Germany, and Japan and India both have about 6%. Most papers come from the disciplines of energy fuels, engineering, physics, materials science, and chemistry, absorbing more than 80% of the total number of articles.

More specifically, in the field of solar photovoltaics the real growth of research output occurred in the 1990s. In the preceding decades, the number of articles remained negligible compared to the growth of the recent 20 years: every year before 1991 the number of papers published in solar photovoltaics was below 100. Since then, however, it started to develop rapidly.

Source:** Web of Knowledge data**, Solar DAO research.

Research and development contributed greatly to the increasing efficiency of solar cells. The Bell Labs 1954 cell was able to convert only 6% of sun energy into useful energy. Typical single-junction solar cells have a theoretical maximum efficiency of .ca 30%, also known as the Shockley-Queisser limit.

This limit obtains because there is a broad mixture of photons with different wavelengths and energy amounts in the sunlight, and a solar cell can only catch a fraction of them at a certain frequency, thereby missing the rest. However, there can be efficiency increases due to research and development, as has been the case with the groundbreaking 2014 multi-junction solar cell that achieved 46% of efficiency.

So why does the world today stand on the edge of a new silicon revolution? Because, given the experience of semiconductors and telecommunications, as well as R&D dynamics in the field of solar energy, it is likely that solar panels will become more and more available and user-friendly. This trend is reflectedin many of today’s blockchain applications, designed to empower customers to control their energy consumption. The next silicon revolution in solar energy will provide users with cleaner, safer, more affordable energy through the mass production of sophisticated devices that require little sophistication to use.

Emerging Industries Require Stability

In 2006, Bradford predicted that

“Like the first silicon revolution, the next one will see industries transformed and massive wealth created. Solar millionaires and billionaires will emerge, and markets may even experience a bubble or two of speculative excitement”.

As was the case with other emerging industries, to become fully established, solar would need a lot of effort to get stabilized and legitimate. In short, it requires institutional infrastructure, including installer networks, training, standardizations, certifications, and relationships with bankers, financiers, and trade groups.

For a long time, sociologists who study markets and industries, have argued that firms seek stability, as much as they strive for profits. Stable relationships among suppliers, customers, employees, and competitors, allow businesses to land firmly into their market niche and avoid destructive price competition. Businesses prefer stability over competition, because that helps them reduce uncertainty about the future.

From the point of view of the industry as a whole, stable relationships among the economic actors reduce the risk of speculative bubbles, which is especially important for emerging technologies. Solar energy, and renewables more generally, are no exception to this rule.

The author of the next silicon revolution thesis writes that in our lifetime we will arrive

“arrive at a world that is safer, cleaner, and wealthier for industrialized economies and developing ones and in which solar energy will play a dominant role in meeting our collective energy needs”.

To make that future happen, we need not only cutting-edge research and funding of new technology. The industry must be stabilized and made available for both end users and investors. That’s why we need such projects asSolar DAO.

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