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Statistically Speaking: The Evolution of the Silicon Solar Cell

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How expensive will avoiding dangerous climate change be? The answer is intimately tied to the pace at which renewable energy technologies advance. And speaking of advancements, a major milestone was just passed in silicon solar cells.

Photovoltaic solar cells come in a variety of forms. The one that's been with us the longest is the silicon solar cell.

Developed at Bell Labs in the early 1950s and originally called a solar "battery," this first modern cell had a conversion efficiency of 4.8 percent. That means that of all the incoming solar energy just under 5 percent of it is converted to electricity. Within a year its conversion efficiency had jumped to 6 percent.

You can chalk up at least part of that improvement to competition, according to John Perlin, author of From
 Space to Earth: The Story of Solar Electricity.

Around the time Bell was working to increase its solar cell's efficiency, RCA released a nuclear-powered cell with a PR splash that paid off. Calling RCA's invention "revolutionary," the New York Times wrote that the new "atomic cell" might eventually allow a wrist watch "which would run for twenty years." But the atomic cell's efficiency clocked in at an unimpressive 0.4 percent.

Bell Labs management took note of their competitor's tiny inroad and encouraged their solar cell engineers to get moving.

Find out the rest of the story here, including the news on the solar cell's latest advancement.

Dr. Bill Chameides is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University. He blogs at

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