A typical solar cell generates only one electron per photon of incoming sunlight. Some exotic materials are thought to produce multiple electrons per photon, but for the first time, the same effect has been seen in silicon. Researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), in Golden, CO, showed that silicon nanocrystals can produce two or three electrons per photon of high-energy sunlight. The effect, they say, could lead to a new type of solar cell that is both cheap and more than twice as efficient as today’s typical photovoltaics.
As in earlier work with other materials, the extra electrons come from photons of blue and ultraviolet light, which have much more energy than those from the rest of the solar spectrum, especially red and infrared light. In most solar cells, the extra energy in blue and ultraviolet light is wasted as heat. But the small size of nanoscale crystals, also called quantum dots, leads to novel quantum-mechanical effects that convert this energy into electrons instead.
By generating multiple electrons from high-energy photons, solar cells made of silicon nanocrystals could theoretically convert more than 40 percent of the energy in light into electrical power, says Arthur Nozik, a senior research fellow at NREL. In contrast, today’s flat rooftop solar panels are at best just over 20 percent efficient and are theoretically limited to about 30 percent efficiency. Concentrating sunlight with mirrors or lenses could raise that figure to about 40 percent, but the same approach could boost the efficiency of a silicon-nanocrystal solar cell to well over 60 percent, Nozik says.
What’s more, solar cells made of silicon nanocrystals could prove to be cheap, giving them a significant advantage over other approaches to high-efficiency solar cells. For example, advanced “multijunction” cells have shown efficiencies of more than 40 percent. But these require complicated manufacturing processes that combine expensive semiconductors optimized for different parts of the solar spectrum. Silicon nanocrystals, in contrast, are relatively easy to make, even compared with the material in conventional solar cells, the best of which are made of very large, single crystals of silicon.
Silicon nanocrystals also have marked advantages over the other nanocrystal materials that have shown the multielectron effect. Some of these materials contain toxic elements such as lead or cadmium, and others rely on elements such as indium that are in limited supply. But silicon is both safe and abundant. It’s also well studied, says Christiana Honsberg, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Delaware, so engineers know how to work with it to make solar cells. Indeed, for many of the same reasons, silicon is by far the most common material in solar cells today, and it’s attractive as the basis for broader deployment of photovoltaics in the future.