New Material Could Double Output Of Solar Panels – CleanTechnica

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The path to a low carbon future looks dim to many people. How will we ever get there if we are limited to the tools we have today? Not to worry, gentle reader. Nothing in this life ever stays the same. What if it were possible to double the output of solar panels? Would that help lift your mood? In a research study published in the journal Science Advances on April 10, 2024, scientists at Lehigh University say they have developed a material that has the potential to drastically increase the efficiency of solar panels.

Here is the abstract of that research paper:

A new generation of quantum material derived from intercalating zerovalent atoms such as Cu into the intrinsic van der Waals gap at the interface of atomically thin two-dimensional GeSe/SnS heterostructure is designed, and their opto-electronic features are explored for next-generation photovoltaic applications.

Advanced ab initio modeling reveals that many-body effects induce intermediate band states, with sub-band gaps (~0.78 and 1.26 electron volts) ideal for next generation solar devices, which promise efficiency greater than the Shockley-Queisser limit of ~32%.

The charge carriers across the heterojunction are both energetically and spontaneously spatially confined, reducing nonradiative recombination and boosting quantum efficiency. Using this IB material in a solar cell prototype enhances absorption and carrier generation in the near-infrared to visible light range.

Tuning the active layer’s thickness increases optical activity at wavelengths greater than 600 nm, achieving greater than 190% external quantum efficiency over a broad solar wavelength range, underscoring its potential in advanced photovoltaic technology.

High Power Solar Panels

According to a Lehigh press release announcing the publication of the research, the university says a prototype using the material as the active layer in a solar cell exhibits an average photovoltaic absorption of 80%, a high generation rate of photo excited carriers, and an external quantum efficiency of up to 190%. “This work represents a significant leap forward in our understanding and development of sustainable energy solutions, highlighting innovative approaches that could redefine solar energy efficiency and accessibility in the near future,” said Chinedu Ekuma, professor of physics, who published the paper about the development of the material with Lehigh doctoral student Srihari Kastuar.

The material’s efficiency leap is attributable largely to its distinctive “intermediate band states,” specific energy levels that are positioned within the material’s electronic structure in a way that makes them ideal for solar energy conversion. These states have energy levels within the optimal sub-band gaps — energy ranges where the material can efficiently absorb sunlight and produce charge carriers — of around 0.78 and 1.26 electron volts. In addition, the material performs especially well with high levels of absorption in the infrared and visible regions of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Exceeding Conventional Limits

In traditional solar cells, the maximum EQE is 100%, representing the generation and collection of one electron for each photon absorbed from sunlight. However, some advanced materials and configurations developed over the past several years have demonstrated the capability of generating and collecting more than one electron from high energy photons, representing an EQE of over 100%.

While such Multiple Exciton Generation (MEG) materials are yet to be broadly commercialized, they hold the potential to greatly increase the efficiency of solar power systems. In the material developed by Lehigh University researchers, the intermediate band states enable the capture of photon energy that is lost by traditional solar cells, including through reflection and the production of heat.

The researchers developed the novel material by taking advantage of “van der Waals gaps” — atomically small gaps between layered two-dimensional materials. These gaps can confine molecules or ions. Materials scientists commonly use them to insert, or “intercalate,” other elements to tune material properties. To develop their novel material, the Lehigh researchers inserted atoms of zerovalent copper between layers of a two-dimensional material made of germanium selenide (GeSe) and tin sulfide (SnS). Professor Ekuma, an expert in computational condensed matter physics, developed the prototype as a proof of concept after extensive computer modeling of the system demonstrated theoretical promise.

Schematic of the thin-film solar cell with CuxGeSe/SnS as the active layer. Image: Ekuma Lab / Lehigh University

“Its rapid response and enhanced efficiency strongly indicate the potential of Cu-intercalated GeSe/SnS as a quantum material for use in advanced photovoltaic applications, offering an avenue for efficiency improvements in solar energy conversion,” he said. “It’s a promising candidate for the development of next generation, high efficient solar cells, which will play a crucial role in addressing global energy needs.”

Although integrating the newly designed quantum material into current solar energy systems will need further research and development, Ekuma points out that the experimental technique used to create these materials is already highly advanced. Scientists have, over time, mastered a method that precisely inserts atoms, ions, and molecules into materials. The research was funded in part by a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.

What Could High Output Solar Panels Mean?

You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, and you don’t need a scientist to tell you that solar panels that are capable of producing double the amount of electricity as today’s conventional panels are a really big deal. Of course, this is applied research and will take years to get into commercial production. That’s a given for any breakthrough in the laboratory. But when this new technology goes mainstream, doubling the output from solar farms and rooftop solar installations will be of global significance.

Advances in technology can eliminate many of the fears people have that the world is not moving fast enough to address the challenge of a warming planet. Advanced, high output solar panels are one piece of meeting that challenge, but there are others. We have reported recently on the “magic ball” from Heimdall Power in Norway that allows grid operators to safely sent more electricity over existing HVDC transmission lines. We also did a story recently on how replacing the wires used in existing transmission lines with new wires — a process known as reconductoring — can greatly increase the amount of electricity transported down those energy corridors.

My colleague Tina Casey is working on a story about how advances in EV technology — smaller, lighter batteries, lighter chassis components, and improved electric motors — could double the efficiency of electric cars by 2050. More efficient cars use less electricity, which helps lower demand on the electrical grid. More electricity available on the supply side, more efficient distribution of electricity, and lowered demand for electricity by consumers add up to avoiding the crisis for the electrical grid that fossil fuel companies like to scream about. (Electricity to power AI is an entirely separate discussion.)

We are nowhere near solving the climate crisis, but the tools we will need to meet that challenge are being developed in research facilities all around the world. We will soon have the technology to become a low emissions world. Whether we use those tools wisely is something that will depend on the policy choices we make going forward. Tyrants are not interested in a better tomorrow, which is something to bear in mind as you head to the polls later this year.


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