Scientists have finally figured how a way to solar cells to produce more energy that they absorb, reaching a critical success point in making solar energy a viable alternative to fossil fuels. However, MIT's Technology Review highlights a political war between China and the United States that could actually make the photovoltaic technology too expensive to market. As a result, energy that should be globally affordable in the near future might just be out of reach.

Just this past week, PhysOrg reported the scientific breakthrough of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), stating that the facility's researchers had finally crafted a solar cell with a "Multiple Exciton Generation" value of over 100-percent. Basically, MEG measures the amount of energy flowing from the external circuit of a solar divided by the amount of energy flowing into it.

So far, the biggest problem with solar energy is that solar cells can't output energy that's equal to the amount of photons (light particles) that they absorb. But thanks to some inventive applications of zinc oxide, lead selenide, and a touch of gold, this new type of solar cell achieves roughly "114 percent external quantum efficiency" from the energy it converts. Here's the bare details from PhysOrg, detailing what it means for green, naturally sustainable energy.

"The newly reported work marks a promising step toward developing Next Generation Solar Cells for both solar electricity and solar fuels that will be competitive with, or perhaps less costly than, energy from fossil or nuclear fuels. "In a 2006 publication, NREL scientists Mark Hanna and Arthur J. Nozik showed that ideal MEG in solar cells based on quantum dots could increase the theoretical thermodynamic power conversion efficiency of solar cells by about 35 percent relative to today's conventional solar cells. Furthermore, the fabrication of Quantum Dot Solar Cells is also amenable to inexpensive, high-throughput roll-to-roll manufacturing."

But even if solar energy becomes cheap enough for mass production, MIT's Technology Review notes that trade tariffs could inflate the cost of the technology. In fact, it's a already started, as China-based producers of solar cells and energy-collecting modules are selling their products at "unfairly low prices." In retaliation, the U.S. Government has started playing political hardball.

So, what does this mean for the average person who wants to use alternative energy? Without the benefit of global collaboration and affordable solar cells, you're probably going to spend less money sticking to electricity and gas. If that's the case, then you can officially stop saving up for that solar-powered roof you always wanted.

"On October 18, the U.S. government was asked to impose tariffs on imports of Chinese solar cells and modules, based on the argument that China-based producers have been heavily subsidized and are selling solar products at unfairly low prices. Perhaps not surprisingly, some Chinese companies have now asked the Chinese government to impose tariffs on imports of American solar products, arguing that U.S.-based producers have been heavily subsidized, too. And just like that, the production of affordable and competitive solar products has become a political liability in the world's two largest producers and consumers of energy."

[MIT Technology Review, PhysOrg]

McKinley Noble is a former GamePro staff editor, current technology nerd and eternal mixed martial arts enthusiast. He also likes Japanese sports dramas and soap operas. Follow him on Twitter or just Google his name.

Like this? You might also enjoy...

Get more GeekTech: Twitter - Facebook - RSS | Tip us off