Silver Bullet for Solar Power

January 22nd, 2009 | Sources: Economist


The key component of solar panels is silicon, but the stuff is expensive so producers are always tempted to utilize less of it.

In fact the latest generation of panels features silicon layers no more than 2 microns thick. Earlier generations were 100 times thicker.

The problem is that thinner cells are less efficient, and these new ones produce 20% less electricity per unit area than the older ones.

But Kylie Catchpole, from Canberra’s Australian National University and Albert Polman, from the Institute for Atomic and Molecular Physics in Amsterdam might have solved the problem.

All they did was add a few silver atoms to those thin silicon panels.

When sunlight strikes the silver atoms, it excites their electrons. A moment later, they fall back to an unexcited state and release light of their own.

If the silver atoms are arrayed correctly along the silicon layers of a solar panel, that light runs along the surface of the layer rather than penetrating through it.

This has the effect of maximizing the photoelectric effects of whatever small amounts of silicon may be present in the cell.

The scientists write in Optics Express that their silver bullet increases the efficiency of the thin silicon cells to a point where they produce approximately as much electricity as the more expensive, earlier generation panels.

And yes silver is itself expensive, but the new technique uses so little of it, it adds only a few pennies to the price.


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