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Measurement of 'hot' electrons could have solar energy payoff
Date:5/5/2011

Basic scientific curiosity paid off in unexpected ways when Rice University researchers investigating the fundamental physics of nanomaterials discovered a new technology that could dramatically improve solar energy panels.

The research is described in a new paper this week in the journal Science.

"We're merging the optics of nanoscale antennas with the electronics of semiconductors," said lead researcher Naomi Halas, Rice's Stanley C. Moore Professor in Electrical and Computer Engineering. "There's no practical way to directly detect infrared light with silicon, but we've shown that it is possible if you marry the semiconductor to a nanoantenna. We expect this technique will be used in new scientific instruments for infrared-light detection and for higher-efficiency solar cells."

More than a third of the solar energy on Earth arrives in the form of infrared light. But silicon -- the material that's used to convert sunlight into electricity in the vast majority of today's solar panels -- cannot capture infrared light's energy. Every semiconductor, including silicon, has a "bandgap" where light below a certain frequency passes directly through the material and is unable to generate an electrical current. By attaching a metal nanoantenna to the silicon, where the tiny antenna is specially tuned to interact with infrared light, the Rice team showed they could extend the frequency range for electricity generation into the infrared. When infrared light hits the antenna, it creates a "plasmon," a wave of energy that sloshes through the antenna's ocean of free electrons. The study of plasmons is one of Halas' specialties, and the new paper resulted from basic research into the physics of plasmons that began in her lab years ago.

It has been known that plasmons decay and give up their energy in two ways; they either emit a photon of light or they convert the light energy into heat. The heating process begins when the plasmon
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Contact: David Ruth
druth@rice.edu
713-348-6327
Rice University
Source:Eurekalert

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