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Solar Breakthrough: Silicon Wire-Array Solar Cells Convert 80% of Sunlight to Electricity

Updated on March 21, 2017

A Silicon Wire-Array Solar Cell

What A Silicon Wire-Array Solar Cell Looks Like.  The Tiny Plastic Tubes Contain Silicon Containing Wires That Absorb Sunlight.
What A Silicon Wire-Array Solar Cell Looks Like. The Tiny Plastic Tubes Contain Silicon Containing Wires That Absorb Sunlight. | Source

Silicon-based photovoltaic (PV) solar cell technology has gradually become more efficient over the decades since it first started being used in common commercial applications during the 1970s. However, traditional methods of constructing silicon-based solar cells on flat surfaces have only experienced slow and gradual sunlight to electricity conversion rate improvements (currently averaging about 15% conversion efficiency rates), and may be reaching their maximum efficiency levels. While scientists have successfully made traditional flat surface solar cells more efficient by introducing rare Earth metals, such as gallium, these metals are expensive and their use in commercial applications appears limited. A new approach is needed to bring solar cell efficiency to the next level higher.

The Surface of a Silicon Wire-Array Solar Cell

The Surface of a Silicon Wire-Array Solar Cell Looks Like a Carpet
The Surface of a Silicon Wire-Array Solar Cell Looks Like a Carpet | Source

A New Approach: Silicon Wire-Array Solar Cells

A scientific research team at the California Institute of Technology (CalTech) Resnick Institute, in Pasadena, California have taken a new approach to designing solar cells by using a silicon wire-array to cover between two (2%) and ten (10%) percent of a cell’s surface area in an array of wires. The extremely thin plastic coatedsilicon wires capture sunlight much more efficiently than flat surfaces coated with silicon. This is due to the way sunlight disperses as it hits a surface. On a flat surface solar cell, the sunlight that is not absorbed is reflected back out into space. On a silicon wire-array covered solar cell, some of the sunlight is initially absorbed by the silicon wires on the array, while the reflected sunlight disperses in many directions and much of it is absorbed by other silicon wires on the array. The silicon-wire arrays absorb approximately eighty-five (85%) percent of total sunlight photons that can be collected. The silicon-wire arrays convert between ninety (90%) and one-hundred (100%) percent of the collected photons into electrons that can be used to create electricity. This translates to a total sunlight absorption to electricity conversion rate solar breakthrough of approximately 80%, which is more than five times more efficient than current flat surface solar cells.

Future Commercial Applications For Silicon Wire-Array Solar Cells

The silicon-wire array solar cells are not only extremely efficient, but they are also much cheaper to produce than traditional flat surface solar cells because they use considerably less silicon in the wire than the amount of silicon used on flat surface cells, which is usually the most expensive raw material that is used in solar cell manufacturing. In addition to needing much less silicon, silicon-wire array solar cells have the added benefit of being flexible, which means than can be manufactured using lower cost manufacturing processes and can be utilized in some building applications that traditional flat surface solar cells cannot be used in.

Due to high sunlight absorption to electricity conversion rate and low manufacturing costs, it is very likely that at some point in the future, silicon-wire array solar cells will replace traditional flat surface solar cells as the dominant type of commercially installed solar cells. This will likely lead to a boom in solar installations, as the economics of solar produced electricity will improve dramatically when 80% efficient solar cells are available for a fraction of the price of what far less efficient solar cells currently sell for. But before silicon-wire array solar cells can be mass produced and installed in commercial applications, a lot of research and development needs to take place to scale these cells up to sizes that make sense in commercial applications.

The scientific team at CalTech that conducted the silicon-wire array solar cells research includes Harry Atwater, Director of Caltech’s Resnick Intitute, Nathan Lewis, professor of Chemistry at Caltech, and Michael Kelzenberg, who was a graduate student.

Solar Power Revolution - Here Comes The Sun -- Documentary

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    • cygnetbrown profile image

      Cygnet Brown 

      7 years ago from Springfield, Missouri

      Another advantage is also the fact that it is a lot lighter than the technology that we are currently using. It definitely makes a whole lot more sense to go to the source of our energy (the sun) than it does to pollute the earth by burning oil or coal.

    • Rock_nj profile imageAUTHOR

      John Coviello 

      8 years ago from New Jersey

      The #1 state for solar installed is CA, #2 is NJ. NJ gives away money by the boatload to people that install solar. Those ones you see on light posts are a utility project, which some people think are unsightly. A lot of other solar installations are on top of buildings (out of sight) or on land that can't be used for other purposes, like polluted industrial land.

      Solar keeps getting cheaper and grid electricity keeps getting more expensive. If a technology like silicon-array solar cells goes commercial, the economics of going solar are really going to make a lot of sense just about everywhere that it is possible.

    • mailxpress profile image

      Michelle Cesare 

      8 years ago from New York

      Hello John,

      I'm headed to NJ tomorrow for a short weekend. OK, whenever I'm in NJ, I see solar panels at the top of light posts. I feel that is a great idea.

      I'm going to follow this Hub for a while. I feel the future is clean energy.

    • Rock_nj profile imageAUTHOR

      John Coviello 

      8 years ago from New Jersey

      Stephanie - I am trying to research what progress has been made on making the wire-array solar panels available in commercial applications. The research I cited in this Hub actually occurred 3 or 4 years ago. I will update the Hub if I find any new developments. It certainly would open up solar to a lot more uses.

    • Stephanie Henkel profile image

      Stephanie Henkel 

      8 years ago from USA

      We currently use flat surface solar panels for shore power on our RV. The panels were expensive, but worth it. However, something like the wire-array solar panels would be SO much better! When they are available, I would consider installing solar panels in our home. Clean, green energy sources are the way of the future! Voted up and shared!

    • Rock_nj profile imageAUTHOR

      John Coviello 

      8 years ago from New Jersey

      Thanks Barbara. It seems as if solar usage is more about economics rather than the available sunlight. For example, the #2 state for solar in the U.S. is New Jersey (not where you expect solar to be big), because the state has put huge financial incentives in place for solar installations and grid electricity is rather expensive (around 14 cents per Kwh). Some of the sunshine states like Florida and Arizona have very low electric rates and less in the way of state subsidies, so solar has lagged behind in those sunny areas.

      One thing this 80% efficient solar cell technology could do is make it much more economical to install solar in places like Michigan. If you can capture 5 times more sunlight and turn it into electricity, then a few hours of good sunlight per day (plus some battery storage) is all you will need to capture the electrons you need for your electrical needs.

    • Barbara Kay profile image

      Barbara Badder 

      8 years ago from USA

      This is an excellent hub. I've never studied solar energy, because they say here in Michigan you could only heat your hot water with it. I don't know how true this is. We do only get good sunlight 6 months of the year.

    • mailxpress profile image

      Michelle Cesare 

      8 years ago from New York

      I'm all for solar energy. I've been browsing Amazon because I want to buy a small inside home panel for emergencies. In the fast five years we've lost electricity several times and next time I want to be ready with a back up. I appreciate the small solar panels to charge cell phones, mobile devices and maybe light a lamp during a bad storm.

      I believe solar will create lots of new jobs, clean source of energy and save people money in the long run.

    • Onlinestrategies profile image

      Onlinestrategies 

      8 years ago

      The main advantage of efficient solar panels is that it takes only very less space for their deployment. With more investment in search for a cleaner energy, I think solar panels will become more efficient in near future so that it becomes a self-sufficient technology.

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