Maybe castor beans are good for something besides castor oil – California based BioSolar has come up with a high-performance protective backsheet for solar panels made partly from a castor bean resin. The bio-based product is cheaper than conventional backsheets, helping to lower the cost of photovoltaic installations.
High tech gains in solar cell efficiency may grab the banner headlines, but behind-the-scenes companies like BioSolar are also scoring points for helping to make solar energy more cost-competitive with fossil fuels by tweaking other components of a solar energy installation.
BioSolar and Castor Beans
Backsheets, which are a protective layer on photovoltaic solar modules, are typically made from petroleum products. BioSolar’s product is called BioBacksheet and true to its name, these backsheets are made from a biobased polyamide resin (nylon is a typical example of a polyamide resin) made from castor beans. The resin is compounded with another non-petroleum substance (cellulose fiber derived from cotton rags, according to this source). The company claims that in addition to being less expensive and more sustainable, its single-layer construction avoids the delamination problem conventional petroleum-based backsheets may have.
Squeezing More Juice from Solar Power Installations
Aside from lowering the cost of solar cell components, there are other ways to boost the cost-competitiveness of solar energy. Gossamer Space Frames is one company that is working on new thin film solar panel rack systems that install more quickly (and therefore less expensively), and collect solar energy more efficiently. Another company, Xerocoat, is boosting thin film solar cell efficiency with a new coating that repels dust more effectively and reduces reflection.
More Sustainable Solar Energy on the Horizon
BioSolar’s main issue is the paradox of manufacturing solar power installations from components made with petroleum products. The fact that a non-petroleum product is cheaper, well that’s just icing on the cake. Exploiting the potential for recycling is another path to more sustainable solar power, which Alcoa for example is pursuing with its low cost aluminum solar panels.
Image: Solar panels by Abi Skipp on flickr.com.
Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.