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Tapping solar’s full potential

Photonics Spectra
Mar 2014
Solar cells may be a little closer to full realization of their potential, thanks to the creation of large sheets of nanotextured silicon microcell arrays. The discovery promises to make solar cells lightweight, bendable, more efficient and easily mass-produced.

Converting sunshine into electricity is not a difficult process, although the lack of a national solar cell network reveals that much of the difficulty lies in doing so efficiently and on a large scale.


A printed solar cell is shown. Researchers have created large sheets of nanotextured silicon microcell arrays that could make solar cells easier to mass-produce. Photo courtesy of University of Central Florida.


But a team from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) and the University of Central Florida (UCF) in Orlando may be one step closer. The group used a light-trapping scheme based on a nanoimprinting technique in which a polymeric stamp mechanically embosses a nanoscale pattern onto the solar cell without additional complex lithographic steps. This approach provides the flexibility that investigators have been searching for, making the design ideal for mass manufacturing, said UCF assistant professor Debashis Chanda, lead researcher of the study.

Previously, scientists had suggested designs that showed higher rates of sun-light absorption, but how efficiently that sunlight was converted into electrical energy was unclear, Chanda said. This study demonstrates that the researchers’ light-trapping scheme offers higher electrical efficiency in a lightweight, flexible module.

This technology could someday lead to solar-powered homes fueled by cells that are reliable and provide stored energy for hours without interruption, the team said.

Chanda, who joined UCF in the fall of 2012 from UIUC, has joint appointments at the Nanoscience Technology Center and the College of Optics and Photonics (CREOL). He has published multiple articles on light-matter interactions and metamaterials. For some of his pioneering works, Chanda received a Department of Energy solar innovation award and a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council award, among others. He also earned a National Science Foundation Summer Institute Fellowship last year.

The study’s findings are featured in Advanced Energy Materials (doi: 10.1002/aenm.201370046).


GLOSSARY
photonics
The technology of generating and harnessing light and other forms of radiant energy whose quantum unit is the photon. The science includes light emission, transmission, deflection, amplification and detection by optical components and instruments, lasers and other light sources, fiber optics, electro-optical instrumentation, related hardware and electronics, and sophisticated systems. The range of applications of photonics extends from energy generation to detection to communications and...
solar cell
A device for converting sunlight into electrical energy, consisting of a sandwich of P-type and N-type semiconducting wafers. A photon with sufficient energy striking the cell can dislodge an electron from an atom near the interface of the two crystal types. Electrons released in this way, collected at an electrode, can constitute an electrical current.
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