The problem is that because they’re so thin, the solar cells let most of the incoming light pass through them. As a result, they convert only 3 percent of the energy in incoming light into electricity. “I think it’s promising,” Beard says. But he adds that so far they’re only showing “a pretty small effect.”
Naughton says that his team plans to address this problem using nanowires. The basic idea, put forward by many different researchers now, is to make forests of nanowires that will absorb light along their lengths. And because each nanowire is thin, the electrons won’t have far to travel to escape to a conductive layer on its surface. This could make it possible to replicate the hot electron effect seen in the thin solar cells. Naughton and colleagues are commercializing such nanowires via a startup called Solasta, based in Newton, MA, which is being funded by the respected venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.
The researchers also hope to increase the number of hot electrons they collect from the absorbed light. To do this, they are turning to an approach taken by Martin Green, a professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia and a leader in using hot electrons in solar cells. This method involves incorporating a layer of quantum dots, which act as a sort-of filter, selectively extracting higher-than-normal-voltage electrons, Beard says. Naughton says that Solasta has already demonstrated that it’s possible to incorporate such quantum dots into the company’s nanowires.