Sandia National Laboratories semiconductor engineer Gregory Nielson and postdoctoral appointee Jose Luis Cruz-Campa recently took some time to discuss their breakthrough in photovoltaic (PV) technology. Their small, flexible photovoltaics are highly efficient and cost effective—the perfect combination for a game-changing technology.

This Q&A and video are part of the Lab Breakthrough series, which highlights innovations developed at the national labs.

Question: In layman’s terms, what makes the breakthrough so exciting in terms of meeting America’s energy needs?

Jose Luis Cruz-Campa: Solar energy is the only energy source that can meet the world’s energy needs in a sustainable manner. The problem with solar energy is that it is more expensive than electricity coming from other sources that currently supply the grid (coal, natural gas, existing nuclear, etc.).

This new approach to solar power uses the same tools and techniques as the microsystems industry, which includes integrated circuits, microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), LEDs, and other technologies. By taking advantage of the microsystems industry, we are able to use an existing manufacturing base along with existing manufacturing tools and an entire support industry that is already in place.

Furthermore, the benefits resulting from the microscale nature of the cells are very compelling. The small size of the cells allows flexible and conformal PV in a way that has not been possible before. Finally, our externally validated cost estimates indicate that this approach has the potential to make solar energy cost competitive with current sources of grid power. This technology could enable the powering of anything by simply exposing it to light.

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