Stanford University breakthrough solar cell research
Ultra-thin solar cells can absorb sunlight more efficiently than the thicker, more expensive-to-make silicon cells used today, because light behaves differently at scales around a nanometer (a billionth of a meter), say Stanford engineers. They calculate that by properly configuring the thicknesses of several thin layers of films, an organic polymer thin film could absorb as much as 10 times more energy from sunlight than was thought possible.
In the smooth, white, bunny-suited clean-room world of silicon wafers and solar cells, it turns out that a little roughness may go a long way, perhaps all the way to making solar power an affordable energy source, say Stanford engineers.
Their research shows that light ricocheting around inside the polymer film of a solar cell behaves differently when the film is ultra thin. A film that's nanoscale-thin and has been roughed up a bit can absorb more than 10 times the energy predicted by conventional theory.
The key to overcoming the theoretical limit lies in keeping sunlight in the grip of the solar cell long enough to squeeze the maximum amount of energy from it, using a technique called "light trapping." It's the same as if you were using hamsters running on little wheels to generate your electricity — you'd want each hamster to log as many miles as possible before it jumped off and ran away.
"The longer a photon of light is in the solar cell, the better chance the photon can get absorbed," said Shanhui Fan, associate professor of electrical engineering. The efficiency with which a given material absorbs sunlight is critically important in determining the overall efficiency of solar energy conversion. Fan is senior author of a paper describing the work published online this week by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Graphic shows a schematic diagram of a thin film organic solar cell showing the top layer, a patterned, roughened scattering layer, in green. The organic thin film layer, shown in red, is where light is trapped and electrical current is generated. The film is sandwiched between two layers that help keep light contained within the thin film. Credit: Stanford University.