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First Solar: Quest for the $1 Watt

Within five years, this company’s thin-film solar cells could compete with coal

11 min read
photo of photovoltaic cell panels
Photo: Gehrlicher Solar

It’s easy to make a small pile of money off photovoltaic cells but very hard to make a big one. The reason is one of the most fundamental in free-market economics: the larger the market you aim for, the more competitors you’ll have to face.

If you just want to power a billion-dollar space probe, almost any price per watt is acceptable. If you are selling to lonely farmhouses, you just have to charge less than the cost of running a power line to the boondocks. In some parts of the world, competing with grid electricity itself may be an easy game during peak consumption hours. But if you want the off-peak market, you’ll have to price your cells at about US $1 per watt. That price is called grid parity, and it’s the holy grail of the photovoltaic industry. At least 80 firms around the world, from Austin to Osaka, are in the chase.

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New Pixel Sensors Bring Their Own Compute

Atomically thin devices that combine sensing and computation also save power

2 min read
close up image of a chip

This optical image shows the 900-pixel 2-D active pixel sensor created by the researchers.

Akhil Dodda, Darsith Jayachandran, and Saptarshi Das

By giving compute powers to atomically thin versions of the CMOS sensors now found in most digital cameras, a prototype sensor array can capture images using thousands to millions of times less power, a new study finds.

CMOS sensors are a kind of active pixel sensor, which combine a light detector with one or more transistors. Although scientists have made steady progress towards more energy-efficient light detectors, the signal conversion and data transmission capabilities of active pixel sensors are currently extremely energy-inefficient, says study co-lead author Akhil Dodda, an electronics engineer who was at Penn State University at University Park in Pennsylvania at the time of the research.

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John Bardeen’s Terrific Transistorized Music Box

This simple gadget showed off the magic of the first transistor

5 min read
 A small electronic gadget encased in clear plastic has a speaker and some buttons.

This music box demonstrated the portability and responsiveness of the point-contact transistor.

The Spurlock Museum/University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

On 16 December 1947, after months of work and refinement, the Bell Labs physicists John Bardeen and Walter Brattain completed their critical experiment proving the effectiveness of the point-contact transistor. Six months later, Bell Labs gave a demonstration to officials from the U.S. military, who chose not to classify the technology because of its potentially broad applications. The following week, news of the transistor was released to the press. The New York Herald Tribune predicted that it would cause a revolution in the electronics industry. It did.

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Designing Fuel Cell Systems Using System-Level Design

Modeling and simulation in Simulink and Simscape

1 min read
Designing Fuel Cell Systems Using System-Level Design

Design and simulate a fuel cell system for electric mobility. See by example how Simulink® and Simscape™ support multidomain physical modeling and simulation of fuel cell systems including thermal, gas, and liquid systems. Learn how to select levels of modeling fidelities to meet your needs at different development stages.