Towards more efficient solar cells

Aug 13, 2014 by Ans Hekkenberg
Potential use of a layer of silicon nanocrystals (large balls) and erbium ions (small balls) as a 'spectral shaper' for photovoltaic applications. This layer converts high-energy UV photons into infrared photons. These lower-energy photons are absorbed by an underlying solar cell. Credit: Fundamental Research on Matter (FOM)

A layer of silicon nanocrystals and erbium ions may help solar cells to extract more energy from the ultraviolet (UV, high-energy) part of the solar spectrum. Experimental physicists from the FOM Foundation, the STW Technology Foundation and the University of Amsterdam published this news in Nature Communications on 13th August 2014. When conventional silicon-based solar cells absorb UV light, much of its energy is lost in the form of heat. The researchers showed that this excess energy can be used to excite multiple erbium ions. This causes the ions to emit light, which can then be converted into electricity.

Conventional solar cells can only convert a small part of the into electricity efficiently. Low- light particles (photons) are not absorbed, as they do not have enough energy to bridge the band gap of the material from which solar cells are made. By contrast, high-energy photons can be absorbed, but in just a few picoseconds (10-12 seconds) much of their energy is transformed into heat. This limits maximum efficiency to just 30 percent.

Fast and efficient

Saba Saeed and her colleagues have now shown that the conversion efficiency can potentially be increased by making better use of the energy contained in these high-energy photons. This can be achieved with a layer consisting of , nanocrystals (particles with a size of a billionth of a meter) and erbium ions. The silicon nanocrystals transfer its to the erbium ions, before it is lost as heat. This leads to the emission of several low-energy infrared photons per absorbed photon, which can produce extra electricity. Compared to sunlight concentrators, which sometimes also make use of rare-earth metals such as erbium, this technique holds the prospect of a higher efficiency.

Spectral shaper

While the process has been demonstrated experimentally, it has not yet been used in a photovoltaic architecture (a solar cell). In the future, a layer of silicon nanocrystals and erbium ions could be placed on top of as a 'spectral shaper', to enhance their efficiency. The 'spectral shapers' would convert high-energy UV photons to several low-energy photons, which can then be used to generate electricity in a solar cell.

The follow-up study will focus on further refinement of the conversion layers by tweaking the size and spacing of the silicon nanocrystals, the concentration and type of rare-earth ion, and by optimizing the layer thickness. It will also be investigated if such a 'spectral shaper' can be integrated into the antireflective coating layer covering every solar cell.

Explore further: Material scientist exploring ways to improve efficiency of solar cells

More information: 'Efficient optical extraction of hot carrier energy', S. Saeed, E.M.L.D. de Jong, K. Dohnalova, and T. Gregorkiewicz. Nature Communications, 13 August 2014.

Related Stories

New nanomaterial increases yield of solar cells

Aug 26, 2013

Researchers from the FOM Foundation, Delft University of Technology, Toyota Motor Europe and the University of California have developed a nanostructure with which they can make solar cells highly efficient. ...

Stacking solar cells method could be electricity gain

Aug 07, 2014

Is there a way to stack solar cells and convert more of the energy in sunlight into electricity? Not only has a company developed a method, but, as a headline said Wednesday in MIT Technology Review, the ...

Solar cells utilize thermal radiation

Nov 04, 2013

Thermal radiation from the sun is largely lost on most silicon solar cells. Up-converters transform the infrared radiation into usable light, however. Researchers have now for the first time successfully ...

Scientists develop pioneering new spray-on solar cells

Aug 01, 2014

( —A team of scientists at the University of Sheffield are the first to fabricate perovskite solar cells using a spray-painting process – a discovery that could help cut the cost of solar electricity.

Recommended for you

3-D images of tiny objects down to 25 nanometres

Mar 30, 2015

Scientists at the Paul Scherrer Institute and ETH Zurich (Switzerland) have created 3D images of tiny objects showing details down to 25 nanometres. In addition to the shape, the scientists determined how ...

Solving molybdenum disulfide's 'thin' problem

Mar 27, 2015

The promising new material molybdenum disulfide (MoS2) has an inherent issue that's steeped in irony. The material's greatest asset—its monolayer thickness—is also its biggest challenge.

User comments : 5

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Andrew Palfreyman
4 / 5 (1) Aug 14, 2014
A price number and an efficiency number or it didn't happen
Aug 14, 2014
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
not rated yet Aug 14, 2014
I also think that at least 50% of converted infrared will be lost because of radiation from erbium is propably omnidirectional. Therefore multilayer cells make more sense. Of course if this conversion layer can be made cheaply, then it has potential.
5 / 5 (1) Aug 14, 2014
I also think that at least 50% of converted infrared will be lost because of radiation from erbium is propably omnidirectional.

If the erbium atom doesn't change its vibration state (i.e. heat) then the in direction will be the same as the out direction of the photons (conservation of momentum)
3 / 5 (2) Aug 14, 2014
A price number and an efficiency number or it didn't happen
Well obviously theyre not that far yet.

-Theyre nice enough to let you know what theyre working on. This bothers you?
1 / 5 (1) Aug 17, 2014
Looks like a good system for a solar voltaic unit for deep space use where a more major part of total solar output IS in the UV spectrum ....and higher.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.