A new type of device that uses both heat and light from the sun should be more efficient than conventional solar cells, which convert only the light into electricity.
The device relies on a physical principle discovered and demonstrated by researchers at Stanford University. In their prototype, the energy in sunlight excites electrons in an electrode, and heat from the sun coaxes the excited electrons to jump across a vacuum into another electrode, generating an electrical current. The device could be designed to send waste heat to a steam engine and convert 50 percent of the energy in sunlight into electricity–a huge improvement over conventional solar cells.
The most common silicon solar cells convert about 15 percent of the energy in sunlight into electricity. More than half of the incoming solar energy is lost as heat. That’s because the active materials in solar cells can interact with only a particular band of the solar spectrum; photons below a certain energy level simply heat up the cell.
One way to overcome this is to stack active materials on top of one another in a multijunction cell that can use a broader spectrum of light, turning more of it into electrical current instead of heat, for efficiencies up to about 40 percent. But such cells are complex and expensive to make.
Looking for a better way to take advantage of the sun’s heat, Stanford’s Nicholas Melosh was inspired by highly efficient cogeneration systems that use the expansion of burning gas to drive a turbine and the heat from the combustion to power a steam engine. But thermal energy converters don’t pair well with conventional solar devices. The hotter it is, the more efficient thermal energy conversion becomes. Solar cells, by contrast, get less efficient as they heat up. At about 100 °C, a silicon cell won’t work well; above 200 °C, it won’t work at all.
The breakthrough came when the Stanford researchers realized that the light in solar radiation could enhance energy conversion in a different type of device, called a thermionic energy converter, that’s conventionally driven solely by heat. Thermionic converters consist of two electrodes separated by a small space. When the positive electrode, or cathode, is heated, electrons in the cathode get excited and jump across to the negative electrode, or anode, driving a current through an external circuit. These devices have been used to power Russian satellites but haven’t found any applications on the ground because they must get very hot, about 1,500 °C, to operate efficiently. The cathode in these devices is typically made of metals such as cesium.