photonic crystal can increase the efficiency of solar cells by up to 37 percent

In conventional solar cells (a), light (dashed line) enters an antireflective layer (yellow) and then a layer of silicon (green) in which much of the light is converted into electricity. But some of the light (solid arrows) reflects off an aluminum backing, returns through the silicon, and exits without generating electricity. A new material (represented by the dots in [b]) makes it possible to convert more of this light into electricity. Instead of reflecting back out of the solar cell, the light is diffracted by one layer of the material (larger dots). This causes the light to reenter the silicon at a low angle, at which point it bounces around until it is absorbed. The light that makes it through the first layer is reflected by the second layer of material (smaller dots) before being diffracted into the silicon.
Credit: Peter Bermel

StarSolar, a startup based in Cambridge, MA, aims to capture and use photons that ordinarily pass through solar cells without generating electricity. StarSolar’s approach addresses a long-standing challenge in photovoltaics. Silicon, the active material that is used in most solar cells today, has to do double duty. It both absorbs incoming light and converts it into electricity. Solar cells could be cheaper if they used less silicon. But if the silicon is made thinner than it is now, it may still retain its ability to convert the photons it absorbs into electricity.

Researchers found that by creating a specific pattern of microscopic spheres of glass within a precisely designed photonic crystal, and then applying this pattern in a thin layer at the back of a solar cell, they could redirect unabsorbed photons back into the silicon.

Photonic crystal can increase the efficiency of solar cells by up to 37 percent, says Peter Bermel, CTO and a cofounder of StarSolar. This makes it possible to use many times less silicon, he says, cutting costs enough to compete with electricity from the grid in many markets.

Shawn-Yu Lin, professor of physics at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, has developed a method for manufacturing eight-inch disks of photonic crystal–a measurement considerably larger than what can be done with conventional techniques.

Another potentially less-expensive method, called interference lithography, creates orderly patterns in the photonic-crystal materials. The method is fast and uses machines that are far less expensive than those used for conventional optical lithography. It also requires fewer steps than Lin’s existing process, so he says it could be far cheaper. Such methods have been developed by Henry Smith, professor of electrical engineering at MIT, who was not involved with the StarSolar-related work. Smith says his interference-lithography method could be used to build templates for imprinting photonic-crystal patterns on large areas.

Another promising technique is self-assembly, in which the chemical and physical properties of material building blocks are engineered so that they arrange themselves in orderly patterns on a surface.

StarSolar hopes to have a prototype solar cell within a year and a pilot manufacturing line operating in 2008.