Invest in Photonics Conference
In March 2010, I had the privilege to speak at a conference entitled ‘Invest in Photonics’ in France. I was invited to give a talk on developments in photovoltaic technology to an audience comprised of representatives from the global photonics industry.
Photonics is a very broad field and is defined as the interface between optics and electronics. It is at the heart of many of the human advancements over the last century. For instance, photonics is responsible for nearly all of today’s communications technology. Televisions, internet hardware, mobile phones are all based on photonics.
One of the core inventions of photonics is the light amplifier of stimulated emission radiation or as most of us know it, the ‘laser.’ Lasers are now everywhere; in every computer, in every cd player, and they are even starting to be used more and more in manufacturing. At the conference there were several companies with impressive lasers that can be used for cutting and welding on an assembly line, all robotically controlled.
Photonics also plays a central role in renewable energy. Since solar cells convert light into electricity, they are considered photonic devices. At the conference I gave a general overview of the photovoltaic market, and described the general areas in which photonics technology is having an impact.
Knowledge of photonics is important for improving the efficiency of all types of solar cells, for example anti-reflective coatings can be used to increase the amount of light that gets into a solar cell. Photonics is also key for concentrating solar energy systems. Lenses and mirrors are often used for guiding light onto a small high-efficiency solar cell (to cut down on the amount of solar cell material required) and also to concentrate light onto a tube filled with fluid that uses heat to run a steam turbine. In addition to just the solar cells, lasers are used at several stages in the manufacturing of solar cells, and the choice of laser can be critical for new technologies.
My talk included an overview of the photovoltaic market and the future potential of the industry. One of the great advantages of photovoltaic technology is that energy can be produced at the point of consumption. This means that the added cost of distributing energy from photovoltaic production is not always necessary, which allows photovoltaics to compete with retail electricity prices rather than wholesale prices. The other great advantage of solar energy is its scalability and the size of the solar resource. Solar cells work effectively for calculators as they do for huge solar plants. The amount of sunlight that reaches the Earth’s surface in one hour is as much as we use in an entire year. This means we know that solar energy could one day provide a large proportion of our energy needs. This is not to say that solar energy will be the only source of energy in future; there will and needs to be a diverse mix of energy generation technologies, but solar has the potential to be a significant player.
The conference was also fantastic opportunity to find out about photonics innovation, and particularly to see the amount of innovation going on in France. It was also a great way to spread the word about GE and our research and development activities in Europe.