solar powered devices suffer from a two-fold problem. First, they have
difficulty converting the light they capture to electricity.
Second, they only capture a small band of wavelengths out
of the wide range of wavelengths found in sunlight striking the Earth.
Improving in either area can offer gains to the net power output (and
efficiency) of a solar cell.
Researchers at the University of Missouri are
claiming a breakthrough in the second category. They claim [press release] to have developed a
device that can capture 90 percent of sunlight, versus the 20 percent that
current photovoltaic (PV) panels capture.
To capture the wider range of wavelengths, Patrick Pinhero, associate professor of chemical
engineering, used a special thin, moldable sheet of small antennas called
nantenna. The resulting material converts heat to electricity and can be
used both for industrial heat recycling and for solar designs. In solar
designs it is capable of collecting both optical (visible) sunlight and the
near infrared band sunlight that most cells miss.
Professor Pinhero collaborated with researchers at the Idaho National
Laboratory and Garrett Moddel, an electrical engineering
professor at the University of Colorado to develop a complete material with
electronic devices capable of harvesting the heat and light collected by the
Professor Pinhero is working to port the resulting device to a mass-producable
design. He's currently securing U.S. Department of
Energy funding and money from private investors to accomplish
this. To that end, he's enlisted the help of Dennis Slafer of
MicroContinuum, Inc., of Cambridge, Mass., a solar power and alternative energy
"Our overall goal is to collect and utilize as much solar energy as is
theoretically possible and bring it to the commercial market in an inexpensive
package that is accessible to everyone," Professor Pinhero states.
"If successful, this product will put us orders of magnitudes ahead of
the current solar energy technologies we have available to us today."
You can't fault Professor Pinhero for ambition. He says that within five
years he should be able to deliver a finished material that complements
traditional PV panel designs in rooftop installations, solar power plant
installations, or rooftop car panels. This material would bump up the
range of collected light, and by proxy bump up the cell's net efficiency and
The instructor expects to create a broad range of commercial spinoffs based on
the technology. The spinoffs would be infrared (IR) detection based
products, including contraband-identifying devices for airports and the
military, optical computing, and infrared line-of-sight
A paper on the new device and material has been published [abstract] in the peer-reviewed Journal
of Solar Energy Engineering.