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A New Way to Use the Sun's Energy

Researchers have demonstrated a new mechanism for converting both sunlight and heat into electricity.

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.

Bright heat: Nicholas Melosh has developed a device for simultaneously converting the sun’s light and heat into electricity. Melosh makes and tests the device in this vacuum chamber in his lab at Stanford University.

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.

Melosh’s group replaced the cesium cathode with a wafer of semiconducting material that can make use of not only heat but also light. When light strikes the cathode, it transmits its energy to electrons in the material in a way that’s similar to what happens in a solar cell. This type of energy transfer doesn’t happen in the metals used to make these cathodes in the past, but it’s typical of semiconductor materials. It doesn’t take quite as much heat for these “preëxcited” electrons to jump to the anode, so this new device can operate at lower temperatures than conventional thermionic converters, but at higher temperatures than a solar cell.

The Stanford researchers call this new mechanism PETE, for photon-enhanced thermionic emission. “The light helps lift the energy level of the electrons so that they will flow,” says Gang Chen, professor of power engineering at MIT. “It’s a long way to a practical device, but this work shows that it’s possible,” he says.

The Stanford group’s prototype, described this month in the journal Nature Materials, uses gallium nitride as the semiconductor. It converts just about 25 percent of the energy in light into electricity at 200 °C, and the efficiency rises with the temperature. Stuart Licht, professor of chemistry at George Washington University, says the process would have an “advantage over solar cells” because it makes use of heat in addition to light. But he cautions: “Additional work will be needed to translate this into a practical, more efficient device.”

The Stanford group is now working to do just that. The researchers are testing devices made from materials that are better suited to solar energy conversion, including silicon and gallium arsenide. They’re also developing ways of treating these materials so that the device will work more efficiently in a temperature range of 400 °C to 600 °C; solar concentrators would be used to generate such high temperatures from sunlight.

Even at high temperatures, the photon-enhanced thermionic converter will generate more heat than it can use; Melosh says this heat could be coupled to a steam engine for a solar-energy-to-electricity conversion efficiency exceeding 50 percent. These systems are likely to be too complex and expensive for small-scale rooftop installations. But they could be economical for large solar-farm installations, says Melosh, a professor of materials science and engineering. He hopes to have a device ready for commercial development in three years.

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