Much more efficient solar cells may soon be possible as a result of technology that more efficiently captures and uses light. StarSolar, a startup based in Cambridge, MA, aims to capture and use photons that ordinarily pass through solar cells without generating electricity. The company, which is licensing technology developed at MIT, claims that its designs could make it possible to cut the cost of solar cells in half while maintaining high efficiency. This would make solar power about as cheap as electricity from the electric grid.
The effort uses a type of material called a photonic crystal that makes it possible to “do things with light that have never been done before,” says John Joannopoulos, a professor of physics at MIT who heads the lab where the new designs for solar applications were developed. Photonic crystals, which can be engineered to reflect and diffract all the photons in specific wavelengths of light, have long been attractive for optical communications, in which the materials can be used to direct and sort light-borne data. Now new manufacturing processes could make the photonic crystals practical for much-larger-scale applications such as photovoltaics.
StarSolar’s approach addresses a long-standing challenge in photovoltaics. Silicon, the active material that is used in most solar cells today, has to do double duty. It both absorbs incoming light and converts it into electricity. Solar cells could be cheaper if they used less silicon. If the silicon is made thinner than it is now, it may still retain its ability to convert the photons it absorbs into electricity. But fewer photons will be absorbed, decreasing the efficiency of the cell.
MIT researchers developed sophisticated computer simulations to understand how thin layers of photonic crystal could be engineered to capture and recycle the photons that slip through thin layers of silicon. Silicon easily absorbs blue light, but not red and infrared light. The researchers found that by creating a specific pattern of microscopic spheres of glass within a precisely designed photonic crystal, and then applying this pattern in a thin layer at the back of a solar cell, they could redirect unabsorbed photons back into the silicon.
Today’s solar cells already reflect some of the light that passes through the silicon. But the photonic crystal has distinct advantages. Conventional solar cells are backed with a sheet of aluminum. The photonic crystal reflects more light than the aluminum does, especially once the aluminum oxidizes. And the photonic crystal diffracts the light so that it reenters the silicon at a low angle. The low angle prevents the light from escaping the silicon. Instead, it bounces around inside; this increases the chances of the light being absorbed and converted into electricity.
As a result, the photonic crystal can increase the efficiency of solar cells by up to 37 percent, says Peter Bermel, CTO and a cofounder of StarSolar. This makes it possible to use many times less silicon, he says, cutting costs enough to compete with electricity from the grid in many markets. The savings would be especially large now, since a current shortage in refined silicon is keeping solar-cell prices high and slowing the growth of solar-cell production.