Led by Stephen Chou, the team has made two dramatic improvements: reducing reflectivity, and more effectively capturing the light that isn’t reflected. As you can see by the illustration below by Dimitri Karetnikov, Princeton’s new solar cell is much thinner and less reflective. By utilizing sandwiched plastic and metal with the nanomesh, this so-called “Plasmonic Cavity with Subwavelength Hole array” or “PlaCSH” substantially reduces the potential for losing the light itself. In fact, it only reflects about 4% of direct sunlight, leading to a 52% higher efficiency than conventional, organic solar cells.
PlaCSH is also capable of capturing a large amount of sunlight even when the sunlight is dispersed on cloudy days, which results in an amazing 81% increase in efficiency under indirect lighting conditions when compared to conventional organic solar cell technology. All told, PlaCSH is up to 175% more efficient than conventional solar cells. As you can see in the image to the right, the difference in reflectivity between conventional and PlaCSH solar cells is really quite dramatic.
The gold mesh that sits on top is incredibly small. It’s only 30 nanometers thick. The holes in the mesh are a mere 175nm in diameter. This replaces the much thicker traditional top layer made out of indium-tin-oxide (ITO). This is the most important part of the innovation. Because the mesh is actually smaller than the wavelength of the light it’s trying to collect, it exploits the bizarre way that light works in subwavelength structures. This unique physical property allows the researchers to effectively capture the light once it enters the holes in the mesh instead of letting much of it reflect away. The bottom layer of the cell remains the same, but this implementation allows the semiconducting layer of plastic in the middle of the cell to be much thinner.
The research team believes that the cells can be made cost effectively using a nanofabrication method that Chou himself invented over a decade ago. Most importantly, it replaces the costly ITO element from solar cells. This will be affordable, and much more flexible than the brittle ITO layer of traditional solar cells. While research is still being done using semiconducting materials other than plastic, this method should work for silicon and gallium arsenide solar cells as well, so it will be able to reduce the size and cost of them drastically while providing similar efficiency benefits.
Via Dr. Stefan Gruenwald