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Solar cells thinner than wavelengths of light hold huge power potential
Date:9/28/2010

In the smooth, white, bunny-suited clean-room world of silicon wafers and solar cells, it turns out that a little roughness may go a long way, perhaps all the way to making solar power an affordable energy source, say Stanford engineers.

Their research shows that light ricocheting around inside the polymer film of a solar cell behaves differently when the film is ultra thin. A film that's nanoscale-thin and has been roughed up a bit can absorb more than 10 times the energy predicted by conventional theory.

The key to overcoming the theoretical limit lies in keeping sunlight in the grip of the solar cell long enough to squeeze the maximum amount of energy from it, using a technique called "light trapping." It's the same as if you were using hamsters running on little wheels to generate your electricity you'd want each hamster to log as many miles as possible before it jumped off and ran away.

"The longer a photon of light is in the solar cell, the better chance the photon can get absorbed," said Shanhui Fan, associate professor of electrical engineering. The efficiency with which a given material absorbs sunlight is critically important in determining the overall efficiency of solar energy conversion. Fan is senior author of a paper describing the work published online this week by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Light trapping has been used for several decades with silicon solar cells and is done by roughening the surface of the silicon to cause incoming light to bounce around inside the cell for a while after it penetrates, rather than reflecting right back out as it does off a mirror. But over the years, no matter how much researchers tinkered with the technique, they couldn't boost the efficiency of typical "macroscale" silicon cells beyond a certain amount.

Eventually the scientists realized that there was a physical limit related to the speed at which light travels within a given materia
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Contact: Louis Bergeron
louisb3@stanford.edu
650-725-1944
Stanford University
Source:Eurekalert  

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