Yesterday, Boeing's (NYSE:BA) wholly owned subsidiary Spectrolab announced that it had developed a new solar cell that can convert 40.7% of the sunlight it gathers into electricity. This is an impressive achievement and a significant improvement over the 36% efficiency level that Sharp (OTC BB: SHCAY.PK) announced it had achieved with its new solar concentrator technology.

The development is significant for a couple of reasons. To begin, Spectrolab, which is currently a leader in providing solar power for space-based applications and presently supplies solar power to more than 500 satellites as well as the International Space Station, should be able to use the advancement to command an even stronger lead in this niche.

For example, by improving solar cell efficiency to 40%, Spectrolab could help satellites operate for longer periods and perhaps perform new functions. Alternatively, more efficient solar cells would allow the company to reduce the form factor of its existing solar cells. To understand this benefit, one needs only to know that at the present time it costs between $10,000 and $20,000 to launch a single pound of material into outer space. A smaller, more efficient solar cell, therefore, could save Spectrolab's satellite customers big money.

Beyond a larger presence in space, the new technology might also help the company penetrate the solar market here on Earth. It's already operating a modest 33-kilowatt facility in Australia and says that it has signed some multimillion-dollar contracts in the past year and "anticipates several new contracts in the next few months."

All of this leads me to the conclusion that the solar industry could soon have a formidable new entrant. And should Boeing decide to put some resources behind it, Spectrolab could make real waves and pose some problems for other solar leaders, such as BP Solar (NYSE:BP), Kyocera (NYSE:KYO), and SunTech Power (NYSE:STP).

With the demand for solar surging worldwide and both countries and energy providers looking to solar concentrator technology as a practical means for generating electricity, I believe that if it plays its cards right, Boeing's Spectrolab could soon be basking in the sun.

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Fool contributor Jack Uldrich will soon be basking in the sun in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. He owns stock in SunTech Power. The Fool has a strict disclosure policy.