MemberSeptember 10, 2021 at 2:38 am
Traditional silicon crystalline solar cells, which have been touted as the industry’s gold standard in terms of efficiency for over a decade, are relatively cheap to manufacture, but they are not very efficient at converting sunlight into electricity. On average, solar panels made from silicon-based solar cells convert between 15 and 20 percent of the sun’s energy into usable electricity.
Silicon’s low sunlight-to-electrical energy efficiency is partially due to a property known as its bandgap, which prevents the semiconductor from efficiently converting higher-energy photons, such as those emitted by blue, green, and yellow light waves, into electrical energy. Instead, only the lower-energy photons, such as those emitted by the longer red light waves, are efficiently converted into electricity.
To harness more of the sun’s higher-energy photons, scientists have explored different semiconductor materials, such as gallium arsenide and gallium phosphide. While these semiconductors have reached higher efficiencies than silicon, the highest-efficiency solar cells have been made by layering different semiconductor materials on top of each other and fine-tuning them so that each can absorb a different slice of the electromagnetic spectrum.
These layered solar cells can reach theoretical efficiencies upward of 50 percent, but their very high manufacturing costs have relegated their use to niche applications, such as on satellites, where high costs are less important than low weight and high efficiency.
The Masdar Institute-MIT step cell, in contrast, can be manufactured at a fraction of the cost because a key component is fabricated on a substrate that can be reused. The device may thus help boost commercial applications of high-efficiency, multijunction solar cells at the industrial level.