Princeton’s nanomesh nearly triples solar cell efficiency

There is huge potential in solar power. The sun is a giant ball of burning hydrogen in the sky, and it’s going to be sticking around for at least a few more billion years. For all intents and purposes, it’s a free source of energy. Sadly, humanity hasn’t been very good at harnessing its power directly. Our current methods of capturing the sun’s energy are very inefficient. For example, modern silicon and indium-tin-oxide-based solar cells are approaching the theoretical limit of 33.7% efficiency. Well, a research team at Princeton has used nanotechnology to create a mesh that increases efficiency over organic solar cells nearly three fold.

Led by Stephen Chou, the team has made two dramatic improvements: reducing reflectivity, and more effectively capturing the light that isn’t reflected. As you can see by the illustration below by Dimitri Karetnikov, Princeton’s new solar cell is much thinner and less reflective. By utilizing sandwiched plastic and metal with the nanomesh, this so-called “Plasmonic Cavity with Subwavelength Hole array” or “PlaCSH” substantially reduces the potential for losing the light itself. In fact, it only reflects about 4% of direct sunlight, leading to a 52% higher efficiency than conventional, organic solar cells.

PlaCSH is also capable of capturing a large amount of sunlight even when the sunlight is dispersed on cloudy days, which results in an amazing 81% increase in efficiency under indirect lighting conditions when compared to conventional organic solar cell technology. All told, PlaCSH is up to 175% more efficient than conventional solar cells. As you can see in the image to the right, the difference in reflectivity between conventional and PlaCSH solar cells is really quite dramatic.

The gold mesh that sits on top is incredibly small. It’s only 30 nanometers thick. The holes in the mesh are a mere 175nm in diameter. This replaces the much thicker traditional top layer made out of indium-tin-oxide (ITO). This is the most important part of the innovation. Because the mesh is actually smaller than the wavelength of the light it’s trying to collect, it exploits the bizarre way that light works in subwavelength structures. This unique physical property allows the researchers to effectively capture the light once it enters the holes in the mesh instead of letting much of it reflect away.  The bottom layer of the cell remains the same, but this implementation allows the semiconducting layer of plastic in the middle of the cell to be much thinner.

The research team believes that the cells can be made cost effectively using a nanofabrication method that Chou himself invented over a decade ago. Most importantly, it replaces the costly ITO element from solar cells. This will be affordable, and much more flexible than the brittle ITO layer of traditional solar cells. While research is still being done using semiconducting materials other than plastic, this method should work for silicon and gallium arsenide solar cells as well, so it will be able to reduce the size and cost of them drastically while providing similar efficiency benefits.

This is all very new, and the information was only published to the internet in the past few weeks, but this technology has the potential to make solar power a financially sound investment for more people. Not only will we be able to generate more power, but it will use less resources to make the cells. We’ll obviously still be using fossil fuels for decades to come, but this research and other breakthroughs like it are accelerating the rate at which we can move to alternate energy sources. (Which is probably a good thing, considering star-encompassing Dyson spheres are still a few years away from becoming a reality…)