Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Solar cells thinner than wavelengths of light hold huge power potential

Date:
September 28, 2010
Source:
Stanford University
Summary:
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 engineers. They calculate that an organic polymer thin film could absorb as much as 10 times more energy from sunlight than was thought possible.

This schematic diagram of a thin film organic solar cell shows 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: Reproduced with permission from Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA

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 by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Light trapping has been used for several decades with silicon solar cells and is done by roughening the surface of the silicon to cause incoming light to bounce around inside the cell for a while after it penetrates, rather than reflecting right back out as it does off a mirror. But over the years, no matter how much researchers tinkered with the technique, they couldn't boost the efficiency of typical "macroscale" silicon cells beyond a certain amount.

Eventually the scientists realized that there was a physical limit related to the speed at which light travels within a given material.

But light has a dual nature, sometimes behaving as a solid particle (a photon) and other times as a wave of energy, and Fan and postdoctoral researcher Zongfu Yu decided to explore whether the conventional limit on light trapping held true in a nanoscale setting. Yu is the lead author of the PNAS paper.

"We all used to think of light as going in a straight line," Fan said. "For example, a ray of light hits a mirror, it bounces and you see another light ray. That is the typical way we think about light in the macroscopic world.

"But if you go down to the nanoscales that we are interested in, hundreds of millionths of a millimeter in scale, it turns out the wave characteristic really becomes important."

Visible light has wavelengths around 400 to 700 nanometers (billionths of a meter), but even at that small scale, Fan said, many of the structures that Yu analyzed had a theoretical limit comparable to the conventional limit proven by experiment.

"One of the surprises with this work was discovering just how robust the conventional limit is," Fan said.

It was only when Yu began investigating the behavior of light inside a material of deep subwavelength-scale -- substantially smaller than the wavelength of the light -- that it became evident to him that light could be confined for a longer time, increasing energy absorption beyond the conventional limit at the macroscale.

"The amount of benefit of nanoscale confinement we have shown here really is surprising," said Yu. "Overcoming the conventional limit opens a new door to designing highly efficient solar cells."

Yu determined through numerical simulations that the most effective structure for capitalizing on the benefits of nanoscale confinement was a combination of several different types of layers around an organic thin film.

He sandwiched the organic thin film between two layers of material -- called "cladding" layers -- that acted as confining layers once the light passed through the upper one into the thin film. Atop the upper cladding layer, he placed a patterned rough-surfaced layer designed to send the incoming light off in different directions as it entered the thin film.

By varying the parameters of the different layers, he was able to achieve a 12-fold increase in the absorption of light within the thin film, compared to the macroscale limit.

Nanoscale solar cells offer savings in material costs, as the organic polymer thin films and other materials used are less expensive than silicon and, being nanoscale, the quantities required for the cells are much smaller.

The organic materials also have the advantage of being manufactured in chemical reactions in solution, rather than needing high-temperature or vacuum processing, as is required for silicon manufacture.

"Most of the research these days is looking into many different kinds of materials for solar cells," Fan said. "Where this will have a larger impact is in some of the emerging technologies; for example, in organic cells."

"If you do it right, there is enormous potential associated with it," Fan said.

Aaswath Raman, a graduate student in applied physics, also worked on the research and is a coauthor of the paper.

The project was supported by funding from the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, which supports the Center for Advanced Molecular Photovoltaics at Stanford, and by the U.S. Department of Energy.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Stanford University. The original article was written by Louis Bergeron. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Zongfu Yu, Aaswath Raman, Shanhui Fan. Fundamental limit of nanophotonic light trapping in solar cells. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2010; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1008296107

Cite This Page:

Stanford University. "Solar cells thinner than wavelengths of light hold huge power potential." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 28 September 2010. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/09/100928092841.htm>.
Stanford University. (2010, September 28). Solar cells thinner than wavelengths of light hold huge power potential. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 24, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/09/100928092841.htm
Stanford University. "Solar cells thinner than wavelengths of light hold huge power potential." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/09/100928092841.htm (accessed July 24, 2014).

Share This




More Matter & Energy News

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Creative Makeovers for Ugly Cellphone Towers

Creative Makeovers for Ugly Cellphone Towers

AP (July 24, 2014) Mobile phone companies and communities across the country are going to new lengths to disguise those unsightly cellphone towers. From a church bell tower to a flagpole, even a pencil, some towers are trying to make a point. (July 24) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Algonquin Power Goes Activist on Its Target Gas Natural

Algonquin Power Goes Activist on Its Target Gas Natural

TheStreet (July 23, 2014) When The Deal's Amanda Levin exclusively reported that Gas Natural had been talking to potential suitors, the Ohio company responded with a flat denial, claiming its board had not talked to anyone about a possible sale. Lo and behold, Canadian utility Algonquin Power and Utilities not only had approached the company, but it did it three times. Its last offer was for $13 per share as Gas Natural's was trading at a 60-day moving average of about $12.50 per share. Now Algonquin, which has a 4.9% stake in Gas Natural, has taken its case to shareholders, calling on them to back its proposals or, possibly, a change in the target's board. Video provided by TheStreet
Powered by NewsLook.com
Robot Parking Valet Creates Stress-Free Travel

Robot Parking Valet Creates Stress-Free Travel

AP (July 23, 2014) 'Ray' the robotic parking valet at Dusseldorf Airport in Germany lets travelers to avoid the hassle of finding a parking spot before heading to the check-in desk. (July 23) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Boeing Ups Outlook on 52% Profit Jump

Boeing Ups Outlook on 52% Profit Jump

Reuters - Business Video Online (July 23, 2014) Commercial aircraft deliveries rose seven percent at Boeing, prompting the aerospace company to boost full-year profit guidance- though quarterly revenues missed analyst estimates. Bobbi Rebell reports. Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:
from the past week

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins