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Solar Cells that See Red

Metamaterials that convert lower-energy photons to usable wavelengths could offer solar cells an efficiency boost.

Researchers at Stanford University have demonstrated a set of materials that could enable solar cells to use a band of the solar spectrum that otherwise goes to waste. The materials layered on the back of solar cells would convert red and near-infrared light—unusable by today’s solar cells—into shorter-wavelength light that the cells can turn into energy. The university researchers will collaborate with the Bosch Research and Technology Center in Palo Alto, California, to demonstrate a system in working solar cells in the next four years.

Light switch: In a process that could make solar cells more efficient, green laser light is “upconverted” to blue light by a solution of dyes and metal nanoparticles.

Even the best of today’s silicon solar cells can’t use about 30 percent of the light from the sun: that’s because the active materials in solar cells can’t interact with photons whose energy is too low. But though each of these individual photons is low energy, as a whole they represent a large amount of untapped solar energy that could make solar cells more cost-competitive.

The process, called “upconversion,” relies on pairs of dyes that absorb photons of a given wavelength and re-emit them as fewer, shorter-wavelength photons. In this case, the Bosch and Stanford researchers will work on systems that convert near-infrared wavelengths (most of which are unusable by today’s solar cells). The leader of the Stanford group, assistant professor Jennifer Dionne, believes the group can improve the sunlight-to-electricity conversion efficiency of amorphous-silicon solar cells from 11 percent to 15 percent.

The concept of upconversion isn’t new, but it’s never been demonstrated in a working solar cell, says Inna Kozinsky, a senior engineer at Bosch. Upconversion typically requires two types of molecules to absorb relatively high-wavelength photons, combine their energy, and re-emit it as higher-energy, lower-wavelength photons. However, the chances of the molecules encountering each other at the right time when they’re in the right energetic states are low. Dionne is developing nanoparticles to add to these systems in order to increase those chances. To make better upconversion systems, Dionne is designing metal nanoparticles that act like tiny optical antennas, directing light in these dye systems in such a way that the dyes are exposed to more light at the right time, which creates more upconverted light, and then directing more of that upconverted light out of the system in the end.

The ultimate vision, says Dionne, is to create a solid. Sheets of such a material could be laid down on the bottom of the cell, separated from the cell itself by an electrically insulating layer. Low-wavelength photons that pass through the active layer would be absorbed by the upconverter layer, then re-emitted back into the active layer as usable, higher-wavelength light.

Kozinsky says Bosch’s goal is to demonstrate upconversion of red light in working solar cells in three years, and upconversion of infrared light in four years. Factoring in the time needed to scale up to manufacturing, she says, the technology could be in Bosch’s commercial solar cells in seven to 10 years.

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