For the past 30 years, the promise of solar power has been both a shining beacon and a source of disappointment. The roadblock has always been the technology needed to harness the sun: It’s frighteningly expensive, and complicated to maintain. Plus, after installing a system, you instantly become the dweeb down the block with the big brown panels on the roof.
Enter Steven Novack of Idaho National Laboratory. Novack and his colleagues have invented a radically different type of solar technology—the nano-antenna, which is about 1/25th the diameter of a human hair and can be crammed by the millions onto a square the width of a mailing envelope. Nano-antennae work sort of like radio antennae to tune in solar radiation, and they absorb about 80 percent of the sun’s available energy, and can collect infrared radiation even when it’s cloudy. By comparison, standard panels make use of only about 20 percent of the sun’s energy. The Idaho lab aims to produce its antennae in sheets for a few dollars a yard. Novack estimates they’ll hit the market by 2015.