Researchers boost solar cell efficiency

November 24, 2008 by David Chandler,

( -- New ways of squeezing out greater efficiency from solar photovoltaic cells are emerging from computer simulations and lab tests conducted by a team of physicists and engineers at MIT.

Using computer modeling and a variety of advanced chip-manufacturing techniques, they have applied an antireflection coating to the front, and a novel combination of multi-layered reflective coatings and a tightly spaced array of lines — called a diffraction grating — to the backs of ultrathin silicon films to boost the cells’ output by as much as 50 percent.

The carefully designed layers deposited on the back of the cell cause the light to bounce around longer inside the thin silicon layer, giving it time to deposit its energy and produce an electric current. Without these coatings, light would just be reflected back out into the surrounding air, said Peter Bermel, a postdoctoral researcher in MIT’s physics department who has been working on the project.

“It’s critical to ensure that any light that enters the layer travels through a long path in the silicon,” Bermel said. “The issue is how far does light have to travel [in the silicon] before there’s a high probability of being absorbed” and knocking loose electrons to produce an electric current.

The team began by running thousands of computer simulations in which they tried out variations in the spacing of lines in the grid, the thickness of the silicon and the number and thicknesses of reflective layers deposited on the back surface. “We use our simulation tools to optimize overall efficiency and maximize the power coming out,” Bermel said.

“The simulated performance was remarkably better than any other structure, promising, for 2-micrometer-thick films, a 50 percent efficiency increase in conversion of sunlight to electricity,” said Lionel Kimerling, the Thomas Lord Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, who directed the project.

The simulations were then validated by actual lab-scale tests. “The final and most important ingredient was the relentless dedication of graduate student Lirong Zeng, in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, to refining the structure and making it,” Kimerling said. “The experiments confirmed the predictions, and the results have drawn considerable industry interest.”

The team will report the first reduction to practice of their findings on Dec. 2 at the Materials Research Society’s annual meeting in Boston. A paper on their findings has been accepted for publication in Applied Physics Letters.

The work is just a first step toward actually producing a commercially viable, improved solar cell. That will require additional fine-tuning through continuing simulations and lab tests, and then more work on the manufacturing processes and materials. “If the solar business stays strong,” Kimerling said, “implementation within the next three years is possible.”

The MIT Deshpande Center selected the project for an “i-team” study to evaluate its business potential. The team analyzed the potential impact of this efficient thin solar cell technology and found significant benefits in both manufacturing and electrical power delivery, for applications ranging from remote off-grid to dedicated clean power.

And the potential for savings is great, because the high-quality silicon crystal substrates used in conventional solar cells represent about half the cost, and the thin films in this version use only about 1 percent as much silicon, Bermel said.

This project, along with other research work going on now in solar cells, has the potential to get costs down “so that it becomes competitive with grid electricity,” Bermel said. While no single project is likely to achieve that goal, he said, this work is “the kind of science that needs to be explored in order to achieve that.”

In addition to Kimerling, Bermel and Zeng, the work was done by John Joannopoulos, the Francis Wright Davis Professor of Physics, and by research engineer Bernard A. Alamariu, research specialist Kurt A. Broderick, both of the Microsystems Technology Laboratories; postdoctoral associate Jifeng Liu; Ching-yin Hong and research associate Xiaoman Duan, both of the Materials Processing Center. Funding was provided by the Thomas Lord Chair in Materials Science and Engineering, the MIT-MIST Initiative, the Materials Research Science and Engineering Center Program of the NSF and the Army Research Office through the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies.

Provided by MIT

Explore further: 'Inverse opal' structure improves thin-film solar cells

Related Stories

'Inverse opal' structure improves thin-film solar cells

January 14, 2014

( —Researchers have shown how to increase the efficiency of thin-film solar cells, a technology that could bring low-cost solar energy. The approach uses 3-D "photonic crystals" to absorb more sunlight than conventional ...

Boosting the power of solar cells

November 26, 2008

( -- New ways of squeezing out greater efficiency from solar photovoltaic cells are emerging from computer simulations and lab tests conducted by a team of physicists and engineers at MIT.

Low-cost 'solar absorber' promising for future power plants

April 5, 2017

Researchers have shown how to modify commercially available silicon wafers into a structure that efficiently absorbs solar energy and withstands the high temperatures needed for "concentrated solar power" plants that might ...

A novel way to concentrate sun's heat

December 2, 2011

Most technologies for harnessing the sun’s energy capture the light itself, which is turned into electricity using photovoltaic materials. Others use the sun’s thermal energy, usually concentrating the sunlight ...

Recommended for you

Reaching new heights in laser-accelerated ion energy

February 20, 2018

A laser-driven ion acceleration scheme, developed in research led at the University of Strathclyde, could lead to compact ion sources for established and innovative applications in science, medicine and industry.

MEMS chips get metatlenses

February 20, 2018

Lens technologies have advanced across all scales, from digital cameras and high bandwidth in fiber optics to the LIGO lab instruments. Now, a new lens technology that could be produced using standard computer-chip technology ...

Using organoids to understand how the brain wrinkles

February 20, 2018

A team of researchers working at the Weizmann Institute of Science has found that organoids can be used to better understand how the human brain wrinkles as it develops. In their paper published in the journal Nature Physics, ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

4.8 / 5 (5) Nov 24, 2008
Finally something that seems like a good step - half the cost, 1/100th the materials, and a big jump in efficiency. Hopefully this will all pan out well enough.. woo!
4 / 5 (5) Nov 24, 2008
So we have a 50% increase in efficiency. Hmm, 50% of WHAT? After reading the article I still have no idea how efficient this new technology is.
not rated yet Nov 25, 2008
So what was the percent?
4.5 / 5 (2) Nov 25, 2008
"So what was the percent?"

I think they're saying that the technology simply increases the light density within the silicon by keeping the available light within the silicon longer, and that this technology can be applied to most current types of photovoltaic crystal technologies. So the '50%', I presume, refers to a 50% increase of the silicon's nominal efficiency (which depends on the design of the crystal). So if the silicon is 18% efficient without the dielectric filter and diffraction grating, then its 27% with them.

Of course, some current technology already uses various forms of back reflectors and filters, so those would have to be removed to use this technology--so you can't say, for example, that this increases all current types of photovoltaics by 50%.
5 / 5 (1) Nov 25, 2008
someone should explain it better.

Every week we have some news about a new discovery with solar panels.

What should we believe? What is the market standard today and what we shoud expect in short term??
1 / 5 (2) Nov 27, 2008
bla bla bla we heard this 100 times

lets hope by 2080 they capapable of doing a effient solar cell, waht a butch of retards

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.