Power Electronics

Project Aims to Double Solar Cell Efficiency

The University of Delaware (UD) has announced that it will lead a project to double the efficiency of terrestrial solar cells over the next four years. The university's Consortium for Very High Efficiency Solar Cells—consisting of 15 universities, corporations and laboratories—could receive up to $33.6 million from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), if all options are awarded, plus another $19.3 million from UD and corporate team members. Those corporate members may include DuPont, BP Solar, Corning Inc., LightSpin Technologies and Blue Square Energy.

The consortium's goal is to develop commercial solar cells that convert sunlight to electricity with an efficiency of 50%. Currently, high-end solar cells operate at a peak efficiency of 24.7%, and solar cells off the production line operate at 15% to 20% efficiency.

New innovations in solar cells continue to arise. In October alone, The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) announced it has developed a plastic solar cell with a 4.4% efficiency, and Wake Forest and New Mexico State universities announced their development of a plastic solar cell with a 5.2% efficiency. The Wake Forest development hinges on engineering materials on the scale of a billionth of a meter (a nanometer), a field called nanotechnology.

Nanotechnology yielded several solar power advances in October: DOE's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) developed a solar cell made from a solution containing nanoscale crystals of semiconductors, a material also central to recent advances made by XsunX. HelioVolt announced that similar nanostructures may form spontaneously in some thin-film solar cells, causing their observed high efficiency. Taking a different route, the Gas Technology Institute (GTI) has earned a patent for a solar cell that converts water directly into hydrogen, and Stellaris has developed a concentrating solar glazing. The Stellaris invention incorporates 6-mm lenses that focus sunlight onto thin strips of solar cell material.

While innovative, many of these technologies have been explored by researchers in the past. In 1988, for example, Dr. Alvin Marks received two patents for photovoltaic technologies based on the use of nanostructures.

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