PASADENA, Calif.—Using arrays of long, thin silicon wires embedded in a polymer substrate, a team of scientists from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) has created a new type of flexible solar cell that enhances the absorption of sunlight and efficiently converts its photons into electrons. The solar cell does all this using only a fraction of the expensive semiconductor materials required by conventional solar cells.
"These solar cells have, for the first time, surpassed the conventional light-trapping limit for absorbing materials," says Harry Atwater, Howard Hughes Professor, professor of applied physics and materials science, and director of Caltech's Resnick Institute, which focuses on sustainability research.
The light-trapping limit of a material refers to how much sunlight it is able to absorb. The silicon-wire arrays absorb up to 96 percent of incident sunlight at a single wavelength and 85 percent of total collectible sunlight. "We've surpassed previous optical microstructures developed to trap light," he says.
This is an amazing accomplishment. At a competitive price such high efficiency in photovoltaic material would allow a much smaller footprint of land area to supply a very large fraction of all the energy we use. Now, if they can manage to do this cheaply it'll be a game changer. See below for reasons why this approach has big cost reduction potential.
They don't waste precious photons.
The silicon wire arrays created by Atwater and his colleagues are able to convert between 90 and 100 percent of the photons they absorb into electrons—in technical terms, the wires have a near-perfect internal quantum efficiency. "High absorption plus good conversion makes for a high-quality solar cell," says Atwater. "It's an important advance."
The key to the success of these solar cells is their silicon wires, each of which, says Atwater, "is independently a high-efficiency, high-quality solar cell." When brought together in an array, however, they're even more effective, because they interact to increase the cell's ability to absorb light.
Is a low price possible? They use far less silicon than in a conventional silicon PV cell. Plus, the flexibility of the material lends itself to lower cost manufacturing techniques.
Each wire measures between 30 and 100 microns in length and only 1 micron in diameter. "The entire thickness of the array is the length of the wire," notes Atwater. "But in terms of area or volume, just 2 percent of it is silicon, and 98 percent is polymer."
In other words, while these arrays have the thickness of a conventional crystalline solar cell, their volume is equivalent to that of a two-micron-thick film.
Since the silicon material is an expensive component of a conventional solar cell, a cell that requires just one-fiftieth of the amount of this semiconductor will be much cheaper to produce.
The composite nature of these solar cells, Atwater adds, means that they are also flexible. "Having these be complete flexible sheets of material ends up being important," he says, "because flexible thin films can be manufactured in a roll-to-roll process, an inherently lower-cost process than one that involves brittle wafers, like those used to make conventional solar cells."
|Share |||Randall Parker, 2010 February 16 11:18 PM Energy Solar|