Photovoltaic solar cells convert light energy from the sun into electricity.
Although significant strides have been made in increasing the efficiency of photovoltaic technology, they usually only result in incremental increases. Researchers at Stanford University have come up with a way that could more than double the efficiency of existing solar cell technology and potentially reduce the costs of solar energy production enough for it to compete with oil as an energy source. Instead of relying solely on photons, the new process, called “photon enhanced thermionic emission,” or PETE, simultaneously combines the light and heat of solar radiation to generate electricity.
Unlike photovoltaic technology currently used in solar panels – which becomes less efficient as the temperature rises – the new process excels at higher temperatures. The Stanford engineers who discovered it say the process promises to surpass the efficiency of existing photovoltaic and thermal conversion technologies. And the materials needed to build a device to make the process work are cheap and easily available, meaning the power that comes from it will be affordable.
“This is really a conceptual breakthrough, a new energy conversion process, not just a new material or a slightly different tweak,” said Nick Melosh, an assistant professor of materials science and engineering, who led the research group. “It is actually something fundamentally different about how you can harvest energy.”
Most photovoltaic cells, such as those used in rooftop solar panels, use the semiconducting material silicon to convert the energy from photons of light to electricity. But the cells can only use a portion of the light spectrum, with the rest just generating heat. This heat from unused sunlight and inefficiencies in the cells themselves account for a loss of more than 50 percent of the initial solar energy reaching the cell.
Capturing heat energy
The researchers knew that if this wasted heat energy could somehow be harvested, solar cells could be much more efficient. The problem has been that high temperatures are necessary to power heat-based conversion systems, yet solar cell efficiency rapidly decreases at higher temperatures. Until now, no one had come up with a way to wed thermal and solar cell conversion technologies.
Melosh’s group figured out that by coating a piece of semiconducting material with a thin layer of the metal cesium, it made the material able to use both light and heat to generate electricity.
“What we’ve demonstrated is a new physical process that is not based on standard photovoltaic mechanisms, but can give you a photovoltaic-like response at very high temperatures,” Melosh said. “In fact, it works better at higher temperatures. The higher the better.”
While most silicon solar cells have been rendered inert by the time the temperature reaches 100 degrees Celsius, the PETE device doesn’t hit peak efficiency until it is well over 200 C.
Because PETE performs best at temperatures well in excess of what a rooftop solar panel would reach, the devices will work best in solar concentrators such as parabolic dishes, which can get as hot as 800 C. Dishes are used in large solar farms similar to those proposed for the Mojave Desert in Southern California and usually include a thermal conversion mechanism as part of their design, which offers another opportunity for PETE to help generate electricity as well as minimize costs by meshing with existing technology.
“The light would come in and hit our PETE device first, where we would take advantage of both the incident light and the heat that it produces, and then we would dump the waste heat to their existing thermal conversion systems,” Melosh said. “So the PETE process has two really big benefits in energy production over normal technology.”