Photovoltaic cells are in some respects relatively simple, with no moving parts being needed to transform sunlight into electricity. At the same time, the advanced cells and solar panels of today typically make use of some fairly rare, and therefore costly, materials in order to improve the efficiency at which they operate. While prices for panels have dropped steadily, the need to rely on such expensive materials has been a thorn in the side of the industry for a long time. Even with so many great strides already being made, the ability to switch to much less costly and more common materials would allow for greatly accelerated progress.
As those who listen to this piece will understand, there is now plenty of hope of this breakthrough being made. Instead of relying on extremely scarce materials like ruthenium to create semiconductors that can turn sunlight into electricity, researchers are now exploring ways of making use of far more common substances. As one of the most abundant materials of all, iron is now attracting attention for its potential of this very important seeming kind.
Iron in its basic form would not be a good fit for solar cells or panels, but the oxides that it so easily forms are another matter entirely. Just as various oxides of iron have been used for decades in storage devices that allow computers to keep data in permanent form, so are these films now being applied to solar technology. While more expensive supporting materials like titanium dioxide are likely still to be needed to produce cells of this new generation, costs of production could very well come down greatly in the process, thanks to the advantages that the use of iron oxides will introduce.
If approaches like this become commercially viable, the impressive progress that solar power has made through the recent past could easily come to seem like mere baby steps in comparison. While the cost of generating a watt of electricity by harnessing the power of the sun has dropped steadily, a breakthrough regarding the use of iron to create panels might steepen that curve considerably. That could turn out to be excellent news for a world that always hungers for more power at lower cost.