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Tiny, Printed Solar Cells Set Efficiency Records

They’re the size of a ball-point pen and are shattering records for how much of the sun’s energy they can convert. Is this the solar tech that can get us truly powered by the sun?

The Apollo project, which launched U.S. astronauts to the moon ahead of the Russians in 1969, cost about $230 billion in today’s dollars. Building and testing the world’s first atomic bomb in the Manhattan Project cost about $28 billion.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative has only spent about $60 million on a new solar energy economy, yet its long-term ambitions are far grander than its price tag: Enable 15% to 18% of America’s electricity generation to be from sunlight by 2030, on the road to producing 80% of the nation’s electricity from all clean sources by 2035. While other programs support this larger goal, the SunShot Initiative is selectively funding research and loan guarantees for "high risk, high payoff concepts" that promise to transform "the ways we generate, store, and utilize solar energy projects" and has leveraged $1.6B in private capital, reports the DOE.

Some of its companies are going strong. One is the startup Semprius. The explosion of interest and funding in solar energy has resulted in a creative explosion of new ideas about how to turn the sun’s photons into power.

Semprius modified technology that prints flexible electronics to lay down thousands of tiny solar cells the size of a ballpoint pen tip. The company’s tech uses low-cost lenses to make the sun focused on the cells brighter by a factor of 1,100, achieving a record 41% efficiency rate. The tiny cells occupy only one-one thousandth of the entire solar module area and can be printed by the thousands, cutting manufacturing costs by 50%.

Semprius first tested its process for printing solar cells in 2007, aided by a DOE "Next-Gen" grant and later earned a spot in the SunShot Incubator in 2010. "They actually met the goals a lot faster than originally anticipated," says the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s Kaitlyn VanSant, the technical monitor for Semprius, on the lab’s website. "The goals were definitely aggressive, but they accomplished them quicker than the timeline."

Now Semprius is scaling up. It received funding from Siemens, Duke Energy, and venture capital investors, as well as opening a manufacturing plant in Henderson, N.C. projected to employ 256 people once it’s fully operational. Perhaps America’s next major scientific breakthrough is already at hand.