In the future, solar cells can become twice as efficient by employing a few smart little nano-tricks. Researchers are currently developing the environment-friendly solar cells of the future, which will capture twice as much energy as the cells of today. The trick is to combine two different types of solar cells in order to utilize a much greater portion of the sunlight.
“These are going to be the world’s most efficient and environment-friendly solar cells. There are currently solar cells that are certainly just as efficient, but they are both expensive and toxic. Furthermore, the materials in our solar cells are readily available in large quantities on Earth. That is an important point,” says Professor Bengt Svensson of the Department of Physics at the University of Oslo (UiO) and Centre for Materials Science and Nanotechnology (SMN) in Norway.
Using nanotechnology, atoms and molecules can be combined into new materials with very special properties. The goal is to utilize even more of the spectrum of sunlight than is possible at present. Ninety-nine per cent of today’s solar cells are made from silicon, which is one of the most common elements on Earth. Unfortunately, silicon solar cells only utilize 20 per cent of the sunlight. The world record is 25 per cent, but these solar cells are laced with rare materials that are also toxic. The theoretical limit is 30 per cent. The explanation for this limit is that silicon cells primarily capture the light waves from the red spectrum of sunlight. That means that most of the light waves remain unutilized.
The new solar cells will be composed of two energy-capturing layers. The first layer will still be composed of silicon cells. “The red wavelengths of sunlight generate electricity in the silicon cells in a highly efficient manner. We’ve done a great deal of work with silicon, so there is only a little more to gain.” The new trick is to add another layer on top of the silicon cells. This layer is composed of copper oxide and is supposed to capture the light waves from the blue spectrum of sunlight.