Scientists from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have developed a new solar cell that they hope will cost a tiny fraction of current production. The new cells consist of tiny silicon wires that measure a mere 1-micron in diameter. These wires are embedded lengthwise and perpendicular into plastic plates where they convert light into electricity at an exceptional rate of efficiency. Any light that is leftover bounces around inside the wire matrix until it finds another wire that can absorb it, thus nearly all the light is captured and converted into electricity.

Professor Harry Atwater at his namesake research group at Caltech explains the new solar material made of tiny silicon wires could “dramatically reduce the cost of making a silicon solar cell. Instead of the expensive process of making a wafer and slicing it up with a saw, throwing away two thirds of it,” says Atwater, “We grow the material and literally peel it off. The plastic sheet is peeled off like scotch tape off a tape dispenser.”

The savings in the new cell technology is that only 2% of the cell is composed of semiconductors – the most expensive component. The other 98% is made from inexpensive plastic, which should translate into significantly lower prices for consumers compared to existing solar cell technologies.  That lower price is in inverse proportion to the rate at which the cells convert sunlight to electrical power.

Silicon Wire Photon Collector. Click image for the largest view.

Professor Atwater and his colleagues used microscale silicon wires (microwires) slightly thicker than nanowires, and poured a polymer containing light-reflecting nanoparticles into the spaces between them. The polymer scatters unabsorbed light back onto the rods and this, combined with a silver reflecting layer at the bottom of the device, allows the cells to absorb up to 85 per cent of incoming light.  But losses mostly from imperfections in the crystal structure of the microwires drive the overall efficiency below the 20 per cent achieved by the best crystalline silicon cells.

The point is that while these cells are merely as efficient as very good photovoltaic panels, they use only about a hundredth of the material. Also the new design is highly flexible: built on a bed of silicon, Atwater’s micrwire arrays can simply be peeled off and stuck pretty much wherever you want. “They could even be integrated into buildings, as components that match the shape of roof tiles,” says Atwater. He has started up a company, Alta Devices, to do just that, and has recently received research funding from the US Department of Energy.

Wire Array Structure Ready for Optical Measurements. Click image for more info.

At about the same thickness as conventional photovoltaic cells, Atwater’s new cells contain far less silicon. The team is currently working on expanding the voltage capacity and size of the cells in order to manufacture large, flexible sheets that can be manufactured inexpensively using “roll-to-roll” fabrication equipment.

The Caltech team had Dave Bullock from in for a tour.  The article is short but the photos quite good. Over the course of nine photos one comes away with a good idea of the production process. It’s worth the click and a look.  The full paper from Nature Materials Letters is available in a pdf download.

There are two primary types of photovoltaic cells. The first is a solid silicon-based PV cell that is very efficient, but also expensive to make and relatively fragile. The second is a thin film cell, which is relatively cheap to make but not as efficient. The Caltech group’s new microwire material potentially bridges that gap, creating a photovoltaic cell that should be low cost to manufacture, but which is close to the efficiency of traditional silicon-based solar panels and perhaps not so easily broken.

This is just round one in the research.  Intuition suggests that much of the regular silicon research might well transfer to Atwater’s concept. We’ll see – this idea is worth watching and it seems Atwater’s team is looking into it as well.


7 Comments so far

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  2. Folding Solar Panel on June 9, 2010 3:50 PM

    That’s is really a breakthrough. When it is going to be available for the general public?

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  4. John Wadley on June 16, 2010 9:12 AM

    I like the idea of capturing more of the light, but that doesn’t do any good
    unless it knocks more electrons loose and creates a flow of electricity. He
    says he captures 85% of the light but still only achieves 20% efficiency due to
    “crystal imperfections”. Does that mean 65% of the captured light is converted
    to heat (which lowers solar efficiency)? Light _intensity_ is what provides the
    energy to boost electrons to a higher orbit where it can flow to an adjacent molecule so I’m a bit skeptical that
    capturing more, nominal light energy is going to improve his efficiency unless
    he is using something like CIG’s technology which is tuned to harvest energy
    from three different parts of the light spectrum. That technology is not cheap
    and uses more toxic chemicals.

    Having worked in the semiconductor world I also have trouble seeing how he
    creates “flexible” nanowires out of silicon which has a rigid crystaline
    chemical structure without creating the “crystal imperfections” that he says
    lowers efficiency. His picture shows them all neatly aligned in a perfect
    vertical forest. Wouldn’t these snap like toothpicks the first time you bent the plastic binding them together?

    I guess I don’t buy some of his statements because it sounds like they are
    intended to draw more solar research money for a pet chemistry project that
    isn’t going to achieve some of the results being claimed. He might mange to lower the cost, but I doubt he’ll get much more than the 20% efficiency of other monocrystaline technologies.

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  6. CNA Training on November 8, 2010 9:29 AM

    nice post. thanks.

  7. sdkulkarni on November 24, 2012 10:02 AM

    make it more ecld wii=lloronomical so that whole will have sigh of rlief we are fed up of pollution from fisil fuels and car emissions

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