Alternative Energy Technology Investing

Solar-Powered Soldiers of the Future

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It's as easy as putting a bumper sticker on your car.

That's what some folks are saying about Stanford University's latest “peel-and-stick” solar cells.

Released this month in the most recent issue of Scientific Reports, researchers claim to be one step closer to the commercialization of flexible, ultra-thin solar “panels” that can be peeled off like Band-Aids and stuck to practically any surface.

Here's what Chi Hwan Lee, lead author of the paper, had to say about this latest development:

While others have been successful in fabricating thin-film solar cells on flexible substrates before, those efforts have required modifications of existing processes or materials. The main contribution of our work is that we have done so without modifying any existing processes, facilities or materials, making them viable commercially. And we have demonstrated our process on a more diverse array of substrates than ever before.

Lee noted this “peel-and-stick” technology can also be applied to thin-film electronics — including printed circuits, ultra-thin transistors, and LCDs.

I admit, as a technology geek and alternative energy supporter, I love this stuff. Watching the early development of technology that will be readily available for future generations is beyond exciting. And from an investor's standpoint, it's just really important to know what's coming down the pike, anyway...

Of course, this kind of “peel-and-stick” technology isn't something we'll see commercialized in the near term. But just knowing what's on the horizon offers us a better read on the long-term viability of current solar technology — and the company's that are married to it.

In the modern energy space, technologies develop so rapidly, we have to stay on top of everything.

Because what's practical today could be completely irrelevant in five or ten years.

So let's take a look at a few today, during these last few hours of 2012...

Solar-Powered Soldiers

Earlier this month, researchers from Penn State created the world's first fiber optic solar cell.

Thinner than a strand of human hair, these cells can produce electricity just as a typical solar cell would — but they're so small, they can actually be used as threads woven into clothing.

According to chemist John Badding, woven, fiber-based solar cells could be lightweight, flexible configurations that are portable, foldable, even wearable. The material could then be connected to electronic devices to power them and charge their batteries.

And apparently, the military is very interested in designing wearable power sources for soldiers in the field. After all, a typical U.S. soldier carries about 16 to 20 pounds worth of batteries on his back, and that's in addition to another 50 to 80 pounds worth of supplies.

For the military, this kind of technology could serve as a game-changer.

Researchers and analysts also note the fibers could be woven into baseball caps or t-shirts that could then be used to recharge smartphones and tablet computers. As well, they could be used to provide power for a new wave of bionic implants and other biomedical devices.

Miracle Material

You've heard my colleague Nick Hodge talk about it before... the “miracle material” called graphene.

It's used in everything from batteries and medical devices to oil exploration and defense systems. And just last week we learned that MIT researchers are now looking at graphene as an alternative and cheaper material for solar cells.

Co-author of the study Silvija Gradecak has claimed technology that utilizes graphene in semiconducting nanostructures could exist within a couple of years, and possibly make solar power much cheaper and more widely available to regular folks.

I truly believe graphene is going to facilitate much of the technological breakthroughs we see in the energy and power storage space over the next few years, so certainly getting some early exposure to graphene suppliers — while they're still cheap — isn't a bad idea.

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New Lease on Lead

In the race to develop next-generation hybrid and electric cars, most automakers are turning to lithium-ion batteries.

But a couple of weeks ago, the CEO of battery company Energy Power Systems claimed his company could buck the trend of transitioning to lithium-ion by offering a practical, and cheaper lead acid battery.

We've used lead-acid batteries for decades to start our cars, but aside from a few earlier versions of electric cars, they've simply been too heavy and inefficient to pursue for hybrids and electric vehicles — although Energy Power Systems' CEO Subhash Dhar says that could soon change...

It really all boils down to cost, and Dhar claims he can produce a power rating four times greater than the best lead-acid battery on the market at a cost of $15-$20 per kW versus $40-$60 for a conventional nickel metal hydride or lithium-ion.

Of course, costs continue to fall in the lithium-ion space, too, but Dhar is no amateur. He was president of Energy Conversion Devices' Ovonic Battery company, he was one of the early developers of the first nickel metal hydride batteries that power today's Toyota Prius as well as a few other hybrids, and was also the president of Ener1, which produced lithium-ion batteries for the Think electric vehicle.

So maybe he's onto something here...

We'll find out soon enough, as production is expected to begin in Q4 of 2014 and ramp up in 2015 for commercial applications.

In the meantime, we'll continue to report on all of these potentially ground-breaking and disruptive technologies at Energy and Capital.

To a new way of life and a new generation of wealth...

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Jeff Siegel

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Jeff is the managing editor of Energy and Capital and contributing analyst for the Energy Investor, an independent investment research service focusing primarily on stocks in the oil & gas, modern energy and infrastructure markets.  He has been a featured guest on Fox, CNBC, and Bloomberg Asia, and is the author of the best-selling book, Investing in Renewable Energy: Making Money on Green Chip Stocks. For more on Jeff, go to his editor's page.


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