Researchers at Stanford University have demonstrated a set of materials that could enable solar cells to use a band of the solar spectrum that otherwise goes to waste. The materials layered on the back of solar cells would convert red and near-infrared light—unusable by today's solar cells—into shorter-wavelength light that the cells can turn into energy. The university researchers will collaborate with the Bosch Research and Technology Center in Palo Alto, California, to demonstrate a system in working solar cells in the next four years.
Even the best of today's silicon solar cells can't use about 30 percent of the light from the sun: that's because the active materials in solar cells can't interact with photons whose energy is too low. But though each of these individual photons is low energy, as a whole they represent a large amount of untapped solar energy that could make solar cells more cost-competitive.
The process, called "upconversion," relies on pairs of dyes that absorb photons of a given wavelength and re-emit them as fewer, shorter-wavelength photons. In this case, the Bosch and Stanford researchers will work on systems that convert near-infrared wavelengths (most of which are unusable by today's solar cells). The leader of the Stanford group, assistant professor Jennifer Dionne, believes the group can improve the sunlight-to-electricity conversion efficiency of amorphous-silicon solar cells from 11 percent to 15 percent.