Enhancing solar cells with nanoparticles

Dec 23, 2008

Deriving plentiful electricity from sunlight at a modest cost is a challenge with immense implications for energy, technology, and climate policy. A paper in a special energy issue of Optics Express, the Optical Society's (OSA) open-access journal, describes a relatively new approach to solar cells: lacing them with nanoscopic metal particles. As the authors describe in the article, this approach has the potential to greatly improve the ability of solar cells to harvest light efficiently.

Like plants, solar cells turn light into energy. Plants do this inside vegetable matter, while solar cells do it in a semiconductor crystal doped with extra atoms. Current solar cells cannot convert all the incoming light into usable energy because some of the light can escape back out of the cell into the air. Additionally, sunlight comes in a variety of colors and the cell might be more efficient at converting bluish light while being less efficient at converting reddish light.

The nanoparticle approach seeks to remedy these problems. The key to this new research is the creation of a tiny electrical disturbance called a "surface plasmon." When light strikes a piece of metal it can set up waves in the surface of the metal. These waves of electrons then move about like ripples on the surface of a pond. If the metal is in the form of a tiny particle, the incoming light can make the particle vibrate, thus effectively scattering the light. If, furthermore, the light is at certain "resonant" colors, the scattering process is particularly strong.

In the Optics Express paper, Kylie Catchpole and Albert Polman show what happens when a thin coating of nanoscopic (a billionth of a meter in size) metal particles are placed onto a solar cell. First of all, the use of nanoparticles causes the incoming sunlight to scatter more fully, keeping more of the light inside the solar cell. Second, varying the size and material of the particles allows researchers to improve light capture at otherwise poorly-performing colors.

In their work, carried out at the FOM Institute for Atomic and Molecular Physics in The Netherlands, Catchpole and Polman showed that light capture for long-wavelength (reddish) light could be improved by a factor of more than ten. Previously Catchpole and co-workers at the University of New South Wales showed that overall light-gathering efficiency for solar cells using metallic nanoparticles can be improved by 30 percent.

"I think we are about three years from seeing plasmons in photovoltaic generation," says Catchpole, who has now started a new group studying surface plasmons at the Australian National University. "An important point about plasmonic solar cells is that they are applicable to any kind of solar cell." This includes the standard silicon or newer thin-film types.

Paper: "Plasmonic Solar Cells," K.R. Catchpole and A. Polman, Optics Express, Vol. 16, Issue 6, December 22, 2008, Focus Issue on Solar Energy edited by Alan Kost, University of Arizona.

Source: Optical Society of America

Explore further: Team finds electricity can be generated by dragging saltwater over graphene

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

New study outlines 'water world' theory of life's origins

21 hours ago

(Phys.org) —Life took root more than four billion years ago on our nascent Earth, a wetter and harsher place than now, bathed in sizzling ultraviolet rays. What started out as simple cells ultimately transformed ...

Unlocking secrets of new solar material

15 hours ago

(Phys.org) —A new solar material that has the same crystal structure as a mineral first found in the Ural Mountains in 1839 is shooting up the efficiency charts faster than almost anything researchers have ...

Environmentally compatible organic solar cells

13 hours ago

Environmentally compatible production methods for organic solar cells from novel materials are in the focus of "MatHero". The new project coordinated by Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) aims at making ...

Recommended for you

First direct observations of excitons in motion achieved

19 hours ago

A quasiparticle called an exciton—responsible for the transfer of energy within devices such as solar cells, LEDs, and semiconductor circuits—has been understood theoretically for decades. But exciton ...

User comments : 6

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

dirk_bruere
not rated yet Dec 23, 2008
So 30% increase in a PV cell of typically 20% efficiency will push it to 26%
NOM
2.3 / 5 (3) Jan 04, 2009
Neil Farbstein's bogus company, vulvox, is timing its breakthrough for precisely when Hell freezes over.

Stop your lying spam fraudstein.
N_O_M
1 / 5 (2) May 07, 2009
Oops, it looks like Neil's spam has been deleted.

The funny thing is that he links to this news story from his Vulvox webpage.

He is going to have to find another new story to link to now.
NeilFarbstein
1 / 5 (1) May 16, 2009
Read the Byrom Cuomo report
NeilFarbstein
1 / 5 (1) May 16, 2009
NOM' is an internet stalker and his posts on other webpages make it clear he has hacked into the phyor.com computer and he has erased those posts himself. He will be investigated.
N_O_M
1 / 5 (1) May 17, 2009
Investigate away Farbstein.
Physorg has been deleting your posts, as they have recognised them for the lying spam they are.

More news stories