Saturday, February 27, 2010

Material Traps Light Cheaper than solar cells

The flexible composite requires far less silicon than today's solar cells.

A new photovoltaic material performs as well as the one found in today's best solar cells, but promises to be significantly cheaper. The material, created by researchers at Caltech, consists of a flexible array of light-absorbing silicon microwires and light-reflecting metal nanoparticles embedded in a polymer.
Light trap: Very little light can escape from this flexible array of silicon microwires embedded in a rubbery substrate. 
Credit: M. Kelzenberg
Computational models suggest that the material could be used to make solar cells that would convert 15 to 20 percent of the energy in sunlight into electricity--on par with existing high-performance silicon cells. But the material would require just 1 percent of the materials used today, potentially leading to a dramatic decrease in costs. The researchers were led by Harry Atwater, professor of applied physics and materials science at Caltech.
The key to the new material's performance is its ability to trap light. The longer a photon bounces around inside the active part of any solar cell, the greater the chance it will dislodge an electron. All high-performance solar cells have antireflective coatings that help trap light. But these cells use require far more silicon and must be sawed from wafers, a wasteful process.
"The promise of light trapping has always been that you could use less silicon and bring the costs down, but it's been difficult to implement," says Eli Yablanovitch, professor of electrical engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, who was not involved with the research.
Many groups have turned to structures such as nanowires and microwires in an effort to solve this problem. The Caltech group's photovoltaic material, which uses silicon microwires, demonstrates a new level of performance largely due to the addition of reflective nanoparticles.


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