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Solar cells thinner than wavelengths of light hold huge power potential


But light has a dual nature, sometimes behaving as a solid particle (a photon) and other times as a wave of energy, and Fan and postdoctoral researcher Zongfu Yu decided to explore whether the conventional limit on light trapping held true in a nanoscale setting. Yu is the lead author of the PNAS paper.

"We all used to think of light as going in a straight line," Fan said. "For example, a ray of light hits a mirror, it bounces and you see another light ray. That is the typical way we think about light in the macroscopic world.

"But if you go down to the nanoscales that we are interested in, hundreds of millionths of a millimeter in scale, it turns out the wave characteristic really becomes important."

Visible light has wavelengths around 400 to 700 nanometers (billionths of a meter), but even at that small scale, Fan said, many of the structures that Yu analyzed had a theoretical limit comparable to the conventional limit proven by experiment.

"One of the surprises with this work was discovering just how robust the conventional limit is," Fan said.

It was only when Yu began investigating the behavior of light inside a material of deep subwavelength-scale substantially smaller than the wavelength of the light that it became evident to him that light could be confined for a longer time, increasing energy absorption beyond the conventional limit at the macroscale.

"The amount of benefit of nanoscale confinement we have shown here really is surprising," said Yu. "Overcoming the conventional limit opens a new door to designing highly efficient solar cells."

Yu determined through numerical simulations that the most effective structure for capitalizing on the benefits of nanoscale confinement was a combination of several different types of layers around an organic thin film.

He sandwiched the organic thin film between two layers of material called "cladding" layers that acted as confini

Contact: Louis Bergeron
Stanford University

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