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Harnessing the phenomena could greatly improve yields

In the never-ending quest to improve solar cell efficiencies, researchers have made another thin film breakthrough.  Using an ultra-thin amorphous silicon solar film which is mere nanometers thick, the researchers observed the "hot electron" effect for the first time and were able to harvest its energy, opening the door to efficiency improvements.

Hot electrons are held as somewhat of a “Holy Grail” in the solar cell research community and reportedly will form the basis of so-called "Third Generation" cells.  When light strikes a solar cell, it produces electrons in a variety of energy states.  Energy from mid-range electrons is commonly harvested, but the high-energy hot electrons typically lose most of their high kinetic energy to heat before they reach the conduction band.

The new ultra-thin film -- less than 30 nm thick -- allows hot electrons to instead use an "escape hatch" and avoid losing their energy.  The team, led by Michael J. Naughton, the Evelyn J. and Robert A. Ferris Professor of Physics at Boston College, focused on minimizing the routes in the environment that electrons can escape to.

While the quantum physics behind this endeavor is complex, the paper's lead author Professor of Physics Krzysztof Kemp says that what they were doing was basically going from trying to heat a pool with a pot of boiling water, to a more reasonable task of trying to heat a sink with boiling water.  He elaborates, "We have shrunk the size of the solar cell by making it thin. In doing so, we are bringing these hot electrons closer to the surface, so they can be collected more readily. These electrons have to be captured in less than a picosecond, which is less than one trillionth of a second."

Typical cells commercial photovoltaics offer efficiencies of somewhere between 10 to 20 percent, but are expensive to produce.  The new cells used a mere fiftieth of the thickness and still retained 3 percent efficiency, thanks mainly to harvesting the hot electrons.  Capturing the hot electrons had the extra benefit of reducing waste heat, which saps voltage.

By combining the technology with nanostructures, such as nanowires, the researchers predict that much higher efficiencies can be achieved.  The end will result will likely be much cheaper cells with efficiencies similar to today's, ultimately lowering costs.

Other members of the research team included Professor of Physics Zhifeng Ren, Research Associate Professor and Laboratory Director Andrzej A. Herczynski, Research Scientist Yantao Gao, doctoral student Timothy Kirkpatrick, and Jakub Rybczynski of Solasta Corp., of Newton MA, which supported the research. 

The research is published in the journal Applied Physics Letters.  The abstract can be viewed here.

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Wasted effort
By kontorotsui on 12/15/2009 2:36:40 PM , Rating: 0
It is pointless to research more efficient solar cells, when there isn't yet a good way to store the energy.
Only 1% of Earth surface is enough to produce energy for the whole planet, with current PV cell technology.
We don't need to lower that to 0.5%, we need to be able to store that energy so we can use it.

RE: Wasted effort
By 3DoubleD on 12/15/2009 3:14:54 PM , Rating: 5
The problem is that solar cells are expensive when you compare the $/Watt to conventional power sources (coal, gas, nuclear, hydro, ect.). The material used here is very very cheap. If a large enough efficiency was attained while using such cheap materials then solar power would see wide spread adoption. Storage is irrelevant as well. Solar power generation peaks the same as daily power usage. Using solar power to satisfy most of the peak load demand would be extremely beneficial. When energy storage becomes achievable then we can consider supplanting all power generation with solar. One step at a time though.

RE: Wasted effort
By 3DoubleD on 12/15/2009 3:22:58 PM , Rating: 2
I forgot to add that this demonstration is likely a bunch of BS. I do research on this exact topic - hot carrier solar cells. They are missing a key component in their design for hot carriers to be properly collected. While their data shows a (very small) voltage increase when exposed higher energy photons there is no basis for attributing it to the collection of hot carriers. If they properly understood the theoretical operation of hot carrier solar cells then they would realize this, but it is clear from their paper that they don't.

RE: Wasted effort
By foolsgambit11 on 12/18/2009 1:24:46 AM , Rating: 2
Exactly. There are two kinds of efficiency that need to be addressed in PV cells to increase their practicality. The point of this line of research is not so much to increase traditional definition of efficiency (the percentage of the total available energy captured), but rather to increase the Watts per unit material.

None the less, total energy captured is an important metric. If houses in temperate climates can provide all the electricity they need (aside from heating, maybe) from solar cells on the roof of their house, that's a big win.

Storage is an issue as well, though. There are several pieces of the puzzle that need to be put together before photovoltaics is ready for prime time.

On my boat, I use a combination of solar and wind power for all of my electricity needs - scant though they are. It was great. I can even power a fridge about 90% of the time. But most of the power comes from the wind generator. The only downside is that it's more apt to need repairs due to the moving parts.

RE: Wasted effort
By AnnihilatorX on 12/16/2009 6:25:31 AM , Rating: 2
Storage is less of an issue when smart power grid can dynamically balance load ans supply, given demand isn't very stable either.

Storage technology also exists. Hydro dams offer quite a good candidate that we already have infrastructure for. Other technology include hyper velocity vacuum flywheels, the exact name I've forgotten.

What the other poster said is right. To compete with cheaper power generation technology like coal, Solar needs to increase efficiency so that less material, space is required to generate same amount of power. This would result in a competitive $/kWH against other current polluting power generation technologies.

RE: Wasted effort
By aqwan135 on 12/20/2009 8:15:54 PM , Rating: 1

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