If you were hunting for the future of solar power, Wales might not seem the most obvious place to look. Yet in a factory in Cardiff, technology that could finally harness the energy of the sun in an affordable way is quietly rolling off the production line.
Such claims may sound familiar. Advocates have talked of the potential of solar power to offer clean and green energy for years, yet the technology has remained stubbornly on the fringes.
One reason is the cost. Photovoltaic (PV) solar panels to provide an average home with electricity will set you back about ?10,000 (US$20,170) to ?18,000.
Now those behind the Welsh operation think they may have made a crucial breakthrough. Their solar cell works in a different way from most, and is not based on silicon, the expensive raw material for conventional solar cells. G24 Innovations (G24i), the company making the new cells, says it can produce and sell them for about a fifth of the price of silicon-based versions. At present, it makes only small-scale chargers for equipment such as mobile phones and MP3 players. But it says larger panels could follow, large enough to replace polluting fossil fuels by generating electricity for large buildings.
"This has been at the laboratory stage for 18 years and now we are ready to take it into a huge amount of applications," says Clemens Betzel, president of G24i.
G24i's technology is based on a colored dye and tiny crystals of titanium oxide, a common pigment in white paint. It exploits a discovery made in 1991 by a Swiss chemist called Michael Graetzel, who found that the combination could be used to copy photosynthesis. When struck by sunlight, the dye spits out an electron, which is immediately captured by the specks of titanium oxide. By collecting the electrons at one side of his new solar cell, and replacing them at the other with an iodide electrolyte solution, Graetzel produced an electric current.
The new so-called Graetzel cells offered a simpler and potentially cheaper way to generate solar power. Traditional silicon cells are more complicated because they require the generation of an electric field within the silicon to carry away the liberated electrons.
And because they work in a different way, Betzel says the new cells offer other advantages too. They work better in low light levels, including indoors, he says, and they are lighter and less fragile than silicon cells, which are usually mounted on glass or rigid plastic.
At least one big hitter in the renewable energy industry agrees with him: Bob Hertzberg, founder of venture capital firm Renewable Capital, a backer of the G-Wiz electric car, has invested in G24i and talks of it making annual profits of ?130 million within five years. The company has not yet found a major buyer for its technology, but Betzel says there are some in the wings.
Design students have also been involved with the development process. Earlier this year, the company ran a competition with 45 product design students at St Martin's College of Art and Design in London, who were asked to think up new uses for the Cardiff solar cells. The winning entries include portable safety lights mounted on life buoys, and lamps to mark scaffolding and hoardings around roadworks and on building sites. They also featured solar-powered security lights, fire exit signs, and window blinds, which could cut electricity use.