This will beat tattooing5 October 2002
A Reuters dispatch to MPS hailed the claim that scientists 'at the University of California Berkeley had come up with a first generation of plastic solar cells which could some day replace the bulky and expensive silicon-based cells used widely now'. Professor Paul Alivisatos, who led the Berkeley team, was reported in the dispatch to have averred in the US journal, Science, that the hair-thin layer of 'nanorod'-impregnated plastic, between electrodes, produces about 0.7V and is only a tenth as efficient as it should be, but that its development path to higher things is clear.
Among the researchers' alleged promises is one that manufacture will be 'quick and dirty', without need for the sophisticated and clean processes used in the making of conventional modern high-efficiency solar cells.
According to the dispatch the plastic can be painted onto almost any surface. The painted-on cells could power devices in or on clothing for example, feeding light-emitting diodes, radios, microprocessors and so forth.
I am reminded of a movie cartoonists' trick that dates back to the pioneering years of film. The cartoon character is made to dip a brush into a paintpot and apply the goo to a surface, and thus to cover the surface not with a monochrome coat but with an elaborate textile-like pattern moulded to the shape of the surface.
Personally, I shall not be satisfied until Professor Alivisatos and his team provide pots of something more than solar cell paint. It must become possible for our children to spraypaint suitable areas of their bodies with easily peelable layers of circuitry that will permit (albeit not excessively) modest sunbathing. The new generation will be able to enjoy solar energy together with such electronic diversion as will befit the sybaritic lifestyle of the 21st century.
Test your geometry here
The popularity of cosmological speculation seems to have infected at least a part of industry. There is so much talk of multi-dimensionality, parallel universes and the rest of it that even people who ought to have their wheels on the ground are slipping related ideas into their marketing hype.
My case in point is some advertising that has been appearing in the up-market press for a certain luxurious European automobile. It is shown parked among sand dunes alongside an amorous couple. The two are gazing at each other with evidently ardent intent while they recline on a carpet laden with good things. A guard dog watches tactfully over their gleaming tourer rather than too obviously over them or their picnic paraphernalia, which includes a tasselled parasol but nothing that is manifestly solar-powered.
The text at the foot of this fabulous picture indicates that 'your domestic staff' can pack all the illustrated carpets, hampers, Afghan hounds and so forth in the automobile's '1222 cubic litres' of baggage space.
I bet none of the advertisements in MPS, however eagerly presented, tests your geometry or imagination with dimensions like that.
I smell a straw in the wind
The British government's minister for energy not long ago opened what was proudly claimed to be the UK's first - and the wide world's largest and most efficient - straw-fired power station. This 36MW plant is expected to feed over 270GWh into the national grid every year while (with new techniques) burning about 200kt of straw from farms within an 80km radius.
But the novelty that has caught my fancy is not some technique connected with the combustion of straw. Rather is it the environment-friendly architecture. A 25m-high central boiler is flanked by 18m-high straw barns and these plant buildings have been required to blend with the environment. That environment happens to be a business park, so the match has been made with the existing warehouse design.
What a delightful swing of the pendulum! How far might it go? Maybe, to please conservationists at least in the UK, power plants of the future will not have to merge with rural backgrounds. They may have but to be sited in industrial parks to be allowed to look their natural selves. And maybe modern wind turbine generators will not have to be disguised as traditional Dutch windmills in order to be admired as adornments of the developed countryside.