New solar cell could boost efficiency by 25 pct

Wed Feb 8, 2012 11:16am EST

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* Could take 2-3 years to assess whether commercially viable

* Hybrid cell converts 44 pct of sunlight vs silicon's 34 pct

By Nina Chestney

LONDON, Feb 8 (Reuters) - A new type of solar cell which could boost the efficiency of solar panels by over 25 percent compared to silicon-based cells has been developed by British scientists, but they need another two or three years to assess whether it is commercially viable.

Scientists at the University of Cambridge have developed a hybrid solar cell which is capable of converting 44 percent of sunlight into electrical power, 29 percent more than traditional cells' capability of 34 percent, they said in the journal NanoLetters on Wednesday.

Solar cells convert the sun's energy into electricity. They absorb energy through semi-conductor materials like silicon from light particles called photons, generating electrons to make electricity.

However, silicon solar cells cannot extract all the energy in a photon and much of the energy from the more energetic blue photons is lost. Usually a solar cell generates one electron from each photon captured.

"We present the first hybrid solar cell that utilises a phenomenon called singlet exciton fission to generate two electrons for each absorbed photon in the organic material," Bruno Ehrler, lead author of the research, told Reuters.

Hybrid cells are not new and were first developed in 1996 but their efficiency needs to be increased and stabilised before they can be commericalised.

"These (hybrid cells) are the first of their kind so it is very difficult to estimate when they will go into commercialisation," Ehrler said.

"The firm Eight19 works closely with the group and will put our cells in production if they turn out to be commercially viable. However, in order to assess that we need to investigate the devices further. This might take 2 to 3 years," he added.

The price of silicon-based panels and cells has fallen dramatically over the past year, cutting profit for manufacturers and putting them under more pressure to produce even cheaper products.

Fledgling technology such as concentrating photovoltaic solar, which multiplies the sun's powers up to hundreds of times, has gained the backing of some large industry players due to its promise of delivering cheaper electricity than traditional solar panels.

The unviversity research team's new hybrid cells could help to reduce costs as well, Ehrler said.

"Since our materials can be dissolved and processed by roll-to-roll printing, we expect the actual cost of a solar panel be much lower than (with) conventional silicon solar cells."

"On an industrial scale, the cost of making the basic silicon solar cell would dominate over the cost of an organic layer printed on top of it. However, this discovery is in an early stage so it is difficult to predict the final cost and device structure," he added. (Editing by William Hardy)

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