Friday, January 28, 2011

Fool's Gold Could Help Produce Solar Energy

Researchers at the University of California, Irvine are working on a new project to utilize the currently considered useless, but also most abundant mineral in the earths crust, iron pyrite, known as fool’s gold, as a potential bonanza for the solar industry.

UCI researchers believe they are on the cusp of creating a new method of processing this mineral, one that is typically regarded as garbage, so that it might convert sunlight into electricity at roughly the same rate as existing silicon technology.

The team plans to process the pyrite into a thin film that can be used for photovoltaic cells. This will set up iron pyrite as serious competition for the current, but scarce and toxic earth minerals used for cell phones and touch screens, such as indium, a costly mineral selling at about $300 a pound. This high demand mineral is currently only mined in a single California location, but plentiful in China, who is now stockpiling and prohibiting its exportation along with cadmium and amorphous silicon. Some of these minerals are rare, super toxic, and not all that efficient.

The fool’s gold project does however face some challenges. While iron pyrite was studied during the 80’s and 90’s along with other abundant minerals such as zinc phosphide, copper oxide, and copper sulfide, lack of urgency and financing caused the research to fade out.

The major setback to the processing of fool’s gold is that the material has poor voltage. The mineral is full of microscopic pockets that suck in electrons, limiting conductivity and the ability to convert solar energy into electricity. The team at UCI is working on filling in the gaps.

While the $2 billion market for solar is growing in the US, not much of the photocell production takes place on our domestic soil. The race is on to bring home all aspects of production to compete on a global market and boost our economy, regardless of government support.

Finding new sources of elements for the development of photovoltaics is the key to innovation, production and the implementation of new products and new jobs on the local scene. I look forward to following this project among others that can inspire and implement change - a break from the status quo.


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