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AMSTERDAM (Reuters) -- A major European chip maker said this week it had discovered new ways to produce solar cells which will generate electricity twenty times cheaper than today's solar panels.

STMicroelectronics, Europe's largest semiconductor maker, said that, by the end of next year, it expected to have made the first stable prototypes of the new cells, which could then be put into production.

Most of today's solar cells, which convert sunlight into electricity, are produced with expensive silicon, the same material used in most semiconductors.

The French-Italian company expects cheaper organic materials such as plastics to bring down the price of producing energy. Over a typical 20-year life span of a solar cell, a single produced watt should cost as little as $0.20, compared with the current $4.

The new solar cells would even be able to compete with electricity generated by burning fossil fuels such as oil and gas, which costs about $0.40 per watt, said Salvo Coffa, who heads ST's research group that is developing the technology.

"This would revolutionize the field of solar energy generation," he said.

ST's trick is to use materials that are less efficient in producing energy from sunlight but which are extremely cheap.

start quoteThis would revolutionize the field of solar energy generation.end quote
-- ST researcher Salvo Coffa

Coffa said the materials should be able to turn at least 10 percent of the sun's energy into power, compared with some 20 percent for today's expensive silicon-based cells.

"We believe we can demonstrate 10 percent efficiency by the end of 2004," Coffa said.

Following that, ST and others would need to develop production technologies to make solar cells and panels in large quantities to achieve the $0.20 per watt target, he said.

"Our target is fixed at $0.20," said Coffa, who expects no major technological difficulties in going from prototypes to mass-produced commercial products.

Renewable energy is an essential part of research for ST, which says its chip and material expertise can be used to develop future solar cells and fuel cells.

ST said three weeks ago it had found a new way to produce tiny yet extremely efficient fuel cells that could power a mobile phone for 20 days.

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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