Thursday, February 12, 2009

"Peak Indium" Means Solar Cells May Run Out Before Fossil Fuels

As reported in the New Scientist, solar cells may be "unsustainable":
Supratik Guha of IBM told the conference that sales of silicon solar cells are booming, with 2008 being the first year that the silicon wafers for solar cells outstripped those used for microelectronic devices.

But although silicon is the most abundant element in the Earth's crust after oxygen, it makes relatively inefficient cells that struggle to compete with electricity generated from fossil fuels. And the most advanced solar-cell technologies rely on much rarer materials than silicon.

The efficiency of solar cells is measured as a percentage of light energy they convert to electricity. Silicon solar cells finally reached 25% in late December. But multi-junction solar cells can achieve efficiencies greater than 40%.

Although touted as the future of solar power, those and most other multiple-junction cells owe their performance to the rare metal indium, which is far from abundant. There are fewer than 10 indium-containing minerals, and none present in significant deposits – in total the metal accounts for a paltry 0.25 parts per million of the Earth's crust.

Most of the rare and expensive element is used to manufacture LCD screens, an industry that has driven indium prices to $1000 per kilogram in recent years. Estimates that did not factor in an explosion in indium-containing solar panels reckon we have only a 10 year supply of it left.

If power from the Sun is to become a major source of electricity, solar panels would have to cover huge areas, making an alternative to indium essential.

(via Planet Gore)


Bob in Los Angeles said...

I don't mind buring a little more dead dinosaur... but didn't he say we also need indium for LCD televisions?

Just you wait until Congress finds out about the coming crisis in LCD TVs. That's when the fourth estate will pick up the story.

Anonymous said...

"Peak Indium", like its big brother "Peak Oil" sounds plausable, but people who peddle such sophistry are ignorant of the way a free market works. It is simply IMPOSSIBLE to run out of oil and likewise to run out if indium. This is because as sources that have low costs are used up, and higher-cost sources are used, the price that suppliers demand will naturally rise, and buyers will do what buyers always do: they will learn to be more efficient in their use of the product and they will look for substitutes or replacements for the product. The rising price will eventually cause people to totally shift away from that product.

In the case of LCD displays, there are several replacement technologies such as organic LEDs that are viable.

Anonymous said...

My newsletter of my local electric utility carried the comment by one of its executives that the typical solar cell installation for a residence in this area costs $25,000, and at present rates has about a 50 year payback when all subsidies and costs are included.

He also noted that the equipment had a 25 year operating lifetime.

The very reason for installing solar cells is to achieve a "sustainable" source of energy. Indeed, the Left is in love with that word, except when it comes to paying for such pipe dreams.

The only way the Left can indeed improve the economic sustainability of solar power is by econmic distortions. They can't seem to get the subsidies from government (read: other taxpayers) high enough, so now they will try to impose high taxes on energy generation to change the cost comparison. Yes indeed, when electric bills are doubled via Cap and Trade mandates, the public will think solar power is a bargain.

Doubling our home utility bills is not the path to improving national prospeity.

Anonymous said...

Is someone trying to drive up the price of indium? Or the alternatives? Another energy-related interest? Perhaps the suppliers of polyethylene naphthalate (PEN) displays that are set to become the big rage?

And where and how good are the studies on this shortage which you cite were conducted by Armin Reller, the materials chemist at the University of Augsburg in Germany?

These kinds of stories themselves are part of the free market, but should they be? They certainly help establish an argumentum ad numerum

Ergo, perhaps I should check out the price of stocks for indium-based companies. In this current global economy, my retirement finds could use a boost of energy.

- Cogito

Carl said...

Of course, it was the comparison to "peak oil" that was the point. I agree that we'll never run out of oil; presumably the same is true of indium. I was just trying to puncture the self-satisfied apocalyptic drama of greens. I especially agree with the third comment that green energy sometimes makes no economic sense. As for investing in indium, that would imply you have some money, which means Cogito's better off than me.

OBloodyHell said...

I believe I listed it here some months ago -- I did a calculation on how much area perfect, 100% solar cells would require in order to "replace" our current infrastructure. The final number, given such things as "days of no sun", nighttime, storage losses for nighttime use, etc., is something on the order of 3/4ths the land area of the state of Delaware.

That's with 100% cells, which you're not gonna get. The best we currently might be able to make at all seems to be about 60% (a number which crops up a lot in engineering efficiency numbers, actually). So even if you assume the capability to create 60% cells in mass quantities (which we can't currently do), you're talking about covering MORE than the entire state of Delaware with these things.

And I believe that the 25yr figure is (or at least was) optimistic. Solar cells may provide some power for 25 years, but, for the most part, they are producing at well below initial capacity (engendering replacement) after as little as 10 years. And there are other expensive associated equipment parts (such as transformers) which definitely have a 10yr lifespan, and actually represent a substantial percentage of that installation cost over and above the part from solar cells.

So not only do you have to produce the surface area of Delaware in solar cells every 10-15 years, you have to also:
1) dispose of it

Yeah, that last is a part lots of people forget. I'm sure one big part of Obama's "green jobs" include squeegee operators who clean this vast array of solar panels.

Now there's a "vastly rewarding job in the high-tech industry" I'm sure can suck up all the mexican illegals we can let slip across the border for the decade or two before we run out of money or get a clue... whichever happens first.

OBloodyHell said...

You may find this article of interest, too. Some of the notions I cite above are indirectly derived from it.

Solar power realities

This is written by a professional installer, who knows how much stuff costs and how long it really lasts for.

Soylent said...

What a bunch of dog-squeeze. Instead of picking on the very real, possibly insurmountable problems of intermittency/storage and distribution you pick on the readily solvable ones.

Indium Tin Oxide(ITO) used in transparent conductors can be replaced with organic conductors(such as AGFAs "orgacon" ink, which boasts higher conductivity than ITO) or mats of unorganized carbon nanotubes("bucky paper") or graphene.

ITO can be efficienctly recycled from used flatscreens and photovoltaics by simply crushing them and disolving the ITO layer in acid, then selectively percipitating the indium out of solution.

ITO can be used far more efficiently in solar cells at a small cost to performance if you use a much thinner ITO layer(which increases resistivity) toghether with a sparse mesh of copper or aluminium foil which occludes a small fraction of the cell, but is a much better conductor than ITO.