A solar cell more than twice as efficient as typical rooftop solar panels has been developed by Spectrolab, a Boeing subsidiary based in Sylmar, CA. It makes use of a highly customizable and virtually unexplored class of materials that could lead to further jumps in efficiency over the next decade, making solar power less expensive than grid electricity in much of the country.
The cell, which employs new “metamorphic” materials, is designed for photovoltaic systems that use lenses and mirrors to concentrate the sun’s rays onto small, high-efficiency solar cells, thereby requiring far less semiconductor material than conventional solar panels. Last month Spectrolab published in the journal Applied Physics Letters the first details on its record-setting cell, initially disclosed in December, which converts 40.7 percent of incoming light into electricity at 240-fold solar concentration–a healthy 1.4 percent increase over the company’s previous world-record cell. Other groups are developing promising cells based on the new type of materials, including researchers at the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), in Golden, CO. The NREL researchers will soon publish results in the same journal showing that their NREL’s designs are tracking Spectrolab’s, improving from 37.9 percent efficiency in early 2005 to 38.9 percent efficiency today.
Metamorphic semiconductors resemble the high-efficiency cells used in space. Like the cells that grace satellites and planetary landers, they employ three layers of semiconductors, each tuned to capture a slice of the solar spectrum (solar panels have only one active layer). These semiconductor layers are assembled, one upon the next, by altering elements fed to a crystal growing in a vacuum. To avoid growing crystals filled with energy-trapping defects, device designers have until recently employed only a limited repertoire of semiconductors, such as germanium and gallium arsenide, which form similar crystal structures.
Metamorphic materials provide flexibility by throwing off this structural constraint, employing a wide range of materials, including those with mismatched structures. “The parameter space you can explore using mismatch opens up a whole world of possibilities,” says NREL principal scientist Sarah Kurtz.
What makes this possible is the addition of buffer layers between the semiconductor layers. This technique was employed in the early 1990s to make high-speed transistors combining silicon and germanium, and then introduced to photovoltaics later in the decade by Cleveland-based semiconductor developer Essential Research. Spectrolab has, however, seen the best results. Its 40.7 percent metamorphic cell improves on Spectrolab’s best conventional cells by incorporating new semiconductors in the top and middle layers that excel at capturing infrared light that was all but missed by the cell’s predecessors.
Such high output may be just the beginning. Raed Sherif, director of concentrator products at Spectrolab, says there is every reason to believe that these metamorphic solar cells will top 45 percent and perhaps even 50 percent efficiency. Sherif says those efficiencies, combined with the vast reduction in materials made possible by 1,000-fold concentrators, could rapidly reduce the cost of producing solar power. “Concentrated photovoltaics are a relatively late entry in the field, but it will catch up very quickly in terms of cost,” he predicts. (See “Solar Power at Half the Cost.”)