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The new solar coating, made from a special nanomaterial may not look like much, but it helps solar cells to be 42 percent more efficient, making them close to being cost competitive. Best of all it can be easily produced with existing infrastructure.  (Source: Rensselaer/Shawn Lin)
New coated cell 43 percent more efficient, can be easily produced with current production lines

Solar breakthroughs are relatively commonplace.  However, typically they are iterative -- small increases by a percent or two in efficiency.  Researchers at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have invented a new solar cell that is anything but iterative as it blows away past offerings by a large margin; something RPI calls a "game-changer" for the solar business.

Against relatively cheap coal power, solar -- like nuclear and wind -- has struggled to compete from a purely economic standpoint.  Worse yet, it trails wind and nuclear in terms of how close it is to being cost competitive.  The light at the end of the tunnel is that solar have shown the highest gains in efficiency of any alternative energy source, making its future look very bright.

The new RPI solar cell is a normal cell covered in a special anti-reflective coating which traps sunlight from nearly every angle and part of the spectrum.  The new cell is near perfect; it absorbs 96.21 percent of the sunlight shined on it, while a normal cell could only absorb 67.4 percent.  That 43 percent efficiency boost, coupled with mass production, if properly implemented could place solar on the verge of competing unsubsidized with coal power, at last.

Shawn-Yu Lin, professor of physics at Rensselaer and a member of the university’s Future Chips Constellation describes the breakthrough, stating, "To get maximum efficiency when converting solar power into electricity, you want a solar panel that can absorb nearly every single photon of light, regardless of the sun’s position in the sky.  Our new antireflective coating makes this possible."

Most materials have a mixture of light absorbing (anti-reflective) and light reflecting properties, depending on the angle and wavelength of light.  For example, eyeglasses allow light to pass through on direct angles, but begin to reflect light at sharper angles.  Solar panels in their current form operate with similar mixed character.  In order to improve efficiency, mechanical components must be added to turn to panel to face the sun.  This system entails significant cost and loss of energy efficiency, as well as a great maintenance burden.

With Professor Lin's discovery, the world's first cost-efficient static solar arrays could be produced.  No matter what angle the sun was at, nearly all sunlight would be absorbed and converted to power.  Professor Lin describes, "At the beginning of the project, we asked ‘would it be possible to create a single antireflective structure that can work from all angles?’ Then we attacked the problem from a fundamental perspective, tested and fine-tuned our theory, and created a working device."

Rensselaer physics graduate student Mei-Ling Kuo helped Professor Lin investigate various antireflective coatings.  Their eventual choice was a nanomaterial, consisting of several fine anti-reflective sheets.  Normal antireflective coatings consist of one sheet, which absorbs light at a specific wavelength.  By stacking seven separate layers into a composite coat, they were able to absorb nearly the entire spectrum.  Furthermore, the staggered nature of the layers "bent" the flow of sunlight to a favorable angle, trapping it in the coating.  This means that if light manages to reflect off a lower layer, it will be sent back down by the upper layers.

Each layer was made from a special nanomaterial consisting of silicon dioxide and titanium dioxide nanorods positioned at an oblique angle.  The material was grown through standard chemical vapor deposition techniques, and could be applied to the manufacturing of most standard solar cells, including III-V multi-junction and cadmium telluride cells.

On a microscopic level the nanomaterial looks like a forest of tiny, densely packed trees.  Each layer is 50 nm to 100 nm thick.

The team hopes to bring their technology quickly to market, as it will require little in the way of manufacturing line changes. The research is detailed in the paper "Realization of a Near Perfect Antireflection Coating for Silicon Solar Energy", published in the journal Optics Letters.

Besides Lin and Kuo, the other researchers listed as co-authors on the paper were E. Fred Schubert, Wellfleet Senior Constellation Professor of Future Chips at Rensselaer; Research Assistant Professor Jong Kyu Kim; physics graduate student David Poxson; and electrical engineering graduate student Frank Mont.

The research was funded with the help of funding from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Basic Energy Sciences, as well as the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research.



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RE: Neat
By Nyamekye on 11/5/2008 10:01:55 AM , Rating: 2
Yes! Now I can make a solar powered computer. Then I play my games outside with my WIFI connection.


RE: Neat
By JonnyDough on 11/5/2008 10:27:03 AM , Rating: 4
That will only work if you wear monitor goggles though, and those are likely to be fairly ridiculous looking. You can't game in sunlight with today's monitors. They reflect too much sunlight making it impossible to see your screen. I can't game in the morning, because there are no curtains in my office. :-P

Anyway, good luck on the virtual-boy like goggles. And kudos on being the biggest nerd on the block. You can kiss that sweet thang next door goodbye, she'll never be yours.


RE: Neat
By Raidin on 11/5/2008 1:52:12 PM , Rating: 2
Are you trying to say that guy is Peter Parker?


RE: Neat
By Clauzii on 11/5/2008 2:47:44 PM , Rating: 2
You don't look stupid if people can't see the goggles:

http://www.dailytech.com/Tuned+Light+Turns+Opaque+...

:)


RE: Neat
By twhittet on 11/6/2008 5:16:03 PM , Rating: 2
"They reflect too much sunlight making it impossible to see your screen."

Well....this article IS about a 96% non-reflective coating, isn't it? Maybe this could be a larger break-through for TVs and monitors than it is for solar technology.


RE: Neat
By JonnyDough on 11/6/2008 8:35:14 PM , Rating: 2
Your mom is non-reflective. Yo momma so fat, she has her own gravitational pull, and not even light can escape it! Muahaha. It carried over from another article. Sorry. :-P


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