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August 3rd, 2007
Tapping into space for energy
The simplest way to convert solar radiation into electricity is by using the so-called extrinsic photo effect, whereby particles of light "knock out" electrons from a screen put up in their path. Soviet scientists from the Leningrad Physical and Technical Institute were the first to produce an electric current in that fashion in the 1930s. True, the efficiency of the first solar sulfur-helium elements was barely 1%. But starting in 1958, silicon solar batteries became the main source of electric power on spacecraft. By the mid-1970s, their efficiency approached 10%, where it remained for nearly two decades. It was only in the mid-1990s that it went up to 15%, and, by the turn of the new century, it had reached 20%.
This was achieved mainly by improving the technique for producing pure silicon - the basic material for making solar cells - from quartzites. The largest deposits of very pure quartzites are found in Russia, which had vast reserves of them. Recently the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna, near Moscow, developed a photo cell with an efficiency of almost 50%. Scientists describe their product as a "star battery." It is an example of how nanotechnology can improve the workings of well-known processes.
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