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Before the NREL work, researchers had believed that silicon crystals small enough to produce the multielectron effect would be impractical as a photovoltaic material. At the nanoscale, the optical properties of silicon change so that it converts less light from the red end of the spectrum into electrons. As a result, any gains from more efficiently converting blue and ultraviolet light would be offset. Nozik and his colleagues found that the nanocrystals did not have to be as small as was previously thought, skirting this problem.

To be sure, the NREL work is only a first step. Making solar cells that take advantage of multielectron generation is a challenge. That’s because the extra electrons are very short-lived, making it difficult to extract them from the nanocrystals to generate an electrical current. Indeed, this has proved so difficult that evidence of the effect has come from indirect methods such as spectroscopy rather than from current generated by a solar cell. The use of the indirect measures has led some prominent experts to question whether the extra electrons are actually being produced, although Nozik says that the effect has been confirmed using multiple techniques. Nozik and his colleagues are now working to make solar cells out of silicon nanocrystals–they’re exploring a number of novel designs–and he says they’ve recently made direct measurements indicating that their cells are releasing multiple electrons per photon absorbed. (Their results have yet to be published.)

Honsberg is cautiously optimistic, calling the finding of the multiple-electron effect in silicon nanocrystals a breakthrough, but only “one breakthrough out of maybe three or four” needed to produce cheap, superefficient solar cells.

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Credit: Arthur Nozik, National Renewable Energy Laboratory

Tagged: Energy, silicon, solar cells, efficiency, photovoltaics, nanocrystals

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