While today’s commercial solar panels typically have an efficiency of at most 25 percent, a silicon solar cell harnessing singlet fission should make it feasible to achieve efficiency of more than 30 percent, Baldo says — a huge leap in a field typically marked by slow, incremental progress. In solar cell research, he notes, people are striving “for an increase of a tenth of a percent.”
Solar panel efficiencies can also be improved by stacking different solar cells together, but combining solar cells is expensive with conventional solar-cell materials. The new technology instead promises to work as an inexpensive coating on solar cells.
The proof of principle in April, 2013, the team had not yet optimized the energy-conversion efficiency of the system, which remains less than 2 percent. But ratcheting up that efficiency through further optimization should be a straightforward process, the researchers say.
In a standard photovoltaic (PV) cell, each photon knocks loose exactly one electron inside the PV material. That loose electron then can be harnessed through wires to provide an electrical current.
But in the new technique, each photon can instead knock two electrons loose. This makes the process much more efficient: In a standard cell, any excess energy carried by a photon is wasted as heat, whereas in the new system the extra energy goes into producing two electrons instead of one.
While others have previously “split” a photon’s energy, they have done so using ultraviolet light, a relatively minor component of sunlight at Earth’s surface. The new work represents the first time this feat has been accomplished with visible light, laying a pathway for practical applications in solar PV panels.
This was accomplished using an organic compound called pentacene in an organic solar cell. While that material’s ability to produce two excitons from one photon had been known, nobody had previously been able to incorporate it within a PV device that generated more than one electron per photon.