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Conspiracy Theories Immaterial to Nanomaterial Science for Photovoltaics

The material science required for making solar power cost competitive with fossil fuels is not easy and has little to do with alleged conspiracies of big oil

2 min read
Conspiracy Theories Immaterial to Nanomaterial Science for Photovoltaics

Noted New York Times columnist and Nobel Prize winner, Paul Krugman has weighed in on the subject of solar power with somewhat mixed results.

He somehow believes that maintaining Moore’s Law over the past half century does not indicate an impressive “mastery of the material world”:

“Moore’s Law — in which the price of computing power falls roughly 50 percent every 18 months — has powered an ever-expanding range of applications, from faxes to Facebook.

Our mastery of the material world, on the other hand, has advanced much more slowly. The sources of energy, the way we move stuff around, are much the same as they were a generation ago.”

I suppose Prof. Krugman believes that the doubling of the number of transistors on a chip every two years comes solely from software developments.

But all of this the Nobel laureate presents to us only so he can introduce the concept of “Moore’s law in solar energy,” which a regular reader of Spectrum will know has not tracked as regularly as some pundits have suggested and may have fallen completely out of sight in the views of most.

Nonetheless Prof. Krugman is correct that the overall trend in the last 25 years has been a reduction in the costs of photovoltaics. But he runs afoul of sound reasoning when he chalks up the lack of greater adoption of solar power with this decreasing price trend—especially within the power grid—to the good old fossil fuel conspiracy.

I am afraid it is a bit more complex than that and part of it leads back to the subject he made a hash of at the beginning of his editorial: material science.

The problem has been to develop a material that produces high conversion rates at a reasonable cost. And a review of just this blog will reveal how much time and resources have been devoted to developing that material with everything from dye-sensitized solar cells to the use of quantum dots.

There is even a vocal segment that believes the nanotechnology solutions that could offer a cheap and highly efficient material for converting the sun’s energy into electricity should be banned because they cause more harm than good. So much for appealing to the sensibility of the so-called environmentalist.

I would like to suggest to Prof. Krugman that instead of railing against the evil intentions of oil producers, he look at some new proposals for ensuring that the technological innovations we need are developed rather than merely promised for some point in the future or their absences blamed on flimsy conspiracy theories.

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Two Startups Are Bringing Fiber to the Processor

Avicena’s blue microLEDs are the dark horse in a race with Ayar Labs’ laser-based system

5 min read
Diffuse blue light shines from a patterned surface through a ring. A blue cable leads away from it.

Avicena’s microLED chiplets could one day link all the CPUs in a computer cluster together.

Avicena

If a CPU in Seoul sends a byte of data to a processor in Prague, the information covers most of the distance as light, zipping along with no resistance. But put both those processors on the same motherboard, and they’ll need to communicate over energy-sapping copper, which slow the communication speeds possible within computers. Two Silicon Valley startups, Avicena and Ayar Labs, are doing something about that longstanding limit. If they succeed in their attempts to finally bring optical fiber all the way to the processor, it might not just accelerate computing—it might also remake it.

Both companies are developing fiber-connected chiplets, small chips meant to share a high-bandwidth connection with CPUs and other data-hungry silicon in a shared package. They are each ramping up production in 2023, though it may be a couple of years before we see a computer on the market with either product.

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