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Question Your World: How Will We Power The Future?

What’s small, a potential game changer in the energy industry, and was created in a household microwave? Listen to the latest Question Your World Radio Report from the Science Museum of Virginia to find out.

Our planet is currently home to over 7 billion people and growing! That adds up to a whole lot of cars, houses, smart phones, wi-fi hot spots, hospitals, and so on. Without a proper power source a lot of those things would go from being very useful to just clunky objects taking up space. So, how to power this growing planet has become quite the hot topic in the science community. 

Solar power has long been considered one of the most plentiful, but trickiest ways to power our planet. Tricky because the cost of efficient solar technology is still prohibitive enough for common use without government subsidies. In order for photovoltaic solar cells to do their thing they need several critical layers composing the semiconductor.  One of the biggest roadblocks to having more commonly used solar power is the cost of the semiconductor components.  At the moment these layers use scarcer elements like gallium and indium. These are only found in specified places on the planet and thus are not very cheap. The cost of these are high to begin with, but factor in that these materials also need to be cooked in specialized ovens at temperatures over 2,000 degrees, which, not surprisingly, brings up the cost yet again.  So, the process of creating these photovoltaic cells is still a bit of a barrier to widespread use.

However, some scientists at the University of Utah have recently taken a slightly different approach to these semiconductors. Michael Free and a crew of energy experts have been working on creating a cheaper semiconductor that could really make an impact on our current energy situation. The newly designed semiconductor is made from much more common elements: copper, zinc, tin, and sulfur. These materials are not only cheap but are found in much higher quantities on our planet, thus making the export and transportation way cheaper too! After several designs, Free and his co-workers feel like they’ve found a solid new design. Now all they would need is a good heat source to fuse everything together. But first, they’ve earned a lunch break, right? Actually, that’s where the story gets really interesting.

Energy is a very important for the human body and we usually ‘fuel’ ourselves by eating. So it’s no wonder that the University of Utah’s offices space had a microwave, you know, to heat up their hot pockets and leftovers to ‘fuel’ these hard working scientists. As you know, sometimes microwaves need to be replaced or upgraded. Well, a working microwave is a terrible thing to waste, even if there’s an upgraded one on route to warm up tasty lunch time treats. So, instead of just throwing it away, these scientists moved it into their lab and zapped their newly designed materials in a common microwave for about 8 minutes, and guess what? The materials were fusing just the right way. So much for those specialized intense heat ovens… the common microwave seemed to do everything they needed for heating and fusing these semi-conductor materials together! 

There’s still plenty of research left to be done before we see the common placement of solar energy all over the world, but this is a promising sign for new ideas, designs and progress. Further testing will lead to more conclusive results, well, after their lunch breaks… once they’re done warming up their hot pockets.

Article by Prabir Mehta, Science Museum of Virginia

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