Clear solar cells hit an all-time efficiency record

(Credit: Ky0n Cheng/Flickr)

In a step closer to skyscrapers that serve as power sources, researchers have set a new efficiency record for color-neutral, transparent solar cells.

The team achieved 8.1% efficiency and 43.3% transparency with an organic, or carbon-based, design rather than conventional silicon.

While the cells have a slight green tint, they are much more like the gray of sunglasses and automobile windows.

Windows, which are on the face of every building, are an ideal location for organic solar cells because they offer something silicon can’t, which is a combination of very high efficiency and very high visible transparency,” says Stephen Forrest, a professor of engineering at the University of Michigan who led the research.

A researcher holds a square of the new transparent solar cell material with tweezers
Yongxi Li holds up a sample of a transparent solar cell. (Credit: Robert Coelius/U. Michigan)

Buildings with glass facades typically have a coating on them that reflects and absorbs some of the light, both in the visible and infrared parts of the spectrum, to reduce the brightness and heating inside the building. Rather than throwing that energy away, transparent solar panels could use it to take a bite out of the building’s electricity needs.

The transparency of some existing windows is similar to the transparency of the solar cells Forrest’s group created.

“The new material we developed, and the structure of the device we built, had to balance multiple trade-offs to provide good sunlight absorption, high voltage, high current, low resistance, and color-neutral transparency all at the same time,” says Yongxi Li, an assistant research scientist in electrical engineering and computer science.

A researcher holds up three small vials with different colored liquids inside
Yongxi Li holds up vials containing the polymers used to make the transparent solar cells. (Credit: Robert Coelius/U. Michigan)

The new material is a combination of organic molecules engineered to be transparent in the visible and absorbing in the near infrared, an invisible part of the spectrum that accounts for much of the energy in sunlight. In addition, the researchers developed optical coatings to boost both power generated from infrared light and transparency in the visible range—two qualities that are usually in competition with one another.

The color-neutral version of the device was made with an indium tin oxide electrode. A silver electrode improved the efficiency to 10.8%, with 45.8% transparency. However, that version’s slightly greenish tint may not be acceptable in some window applications.

Transparent solar cells are measured by their light utilization efficiency, which describes how much energy from the light hitting the window is available either as electricity or as transmitted light on the interior side.

Previous transparent solar cells have light utilization efficiencies of roughly 2-3%, but the indium tin oxide cell is rated at 3.5% and the silver version has a light utilization efficiency of 5%.

Both versions can be manufactured at large scale, using materials that are less toxic than other transparent solar cells. The transparent organic solar cells can also be customized for local latitudes, taking advantage of the fact that they are most efficient when the sun’s rays are hitting them at a perpendicular angle. They can be placed in between the panes of double-glazed windows.

Forrest and his team are working on several improvements to the technology, with the next goal being to reach a light utilization efficiency of 7% and extending the cell lifetime to about 10 years. They are also investigating the economics of installing transparent solar cell windows into new and existing buildings.

The research appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Additional researchers at North Carolina State University, Soochow University in China, and SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory contributed to the work.

The material is based upon work the US Department of Energy Solar Energy Technologies Office as well as the Office of Naval Research and Universal Display Corporation supported.

Source: University of Michigan