One way to squeeze more power out of sunlight is to ensure that it always hits a solar panel at the ideal angle. This means either tracking the sun and maneuvering a panel to face it, or using complex optics to redirect the sun's rays to hit the panel's surface from above.
|Fold-up silicon: In these images, three thin films of silicon
fold up into 3-D shapes under the force of surface tension as water
droplets placed in their centers evaporate. The top row depicts the
first step, when the water droplets are large, and the images below it
show a time progression as the water droplets shrinks. |
Researchers at the University of Illinois have now come up with self-assembling spherical solar cells capable of capturing more sunlight than flat ones. The shape is a simpler way to make more use of the sun's rays, but has been difficult to realize in a solar cell. These new microscale solar cells are made using conventional lithography combined with self-assembly. If they prove practical, the devices could be wired up into large arrays that have the same power output as conventional cells, but that save on materials costs by using less silicon.
"Instead of a big slab of semiconductor fitted with concentrating lenses and motors to move it around, we want to make compact cells that still have a significant power output," says Ralph Nuzzo, professor of chemistry at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Curved surfaces capture more light than flat ones because they have a greater surface area. But making solar cells that are curved or spherical is challenging, says Nuzzo, because the techniques used to process semiconducting materials such as silicon work best on flat surfaces. Nuzzo's group has overcome this problem by making microscale 3-D structures that self-assemble from flat sheets.