Magazine article Science News

Careening Electrons May Rev Up Solar Cells

Magazine article Science News

Careening Electrons May Rev Up Solar Cells

Article excerpt

In ordinary photovoltaic cells, lots of sunlight goes to waste as it heats up the cell. New results suggest that solar cells made from nanocrystals can trade this wasteful heating for an electricity-generating boost.

Theoretical calculations indicate that nanocrystal-based solar cells could convert 60 percent of sunlight into electricity, say Richard D. Schaller and Victor I. Klimov of Los Alamos (N.M.) National Laboratory. The best solar cells today operate at an efficiency of about 32 percent.

Schaller and Klimov describe their results, the first observations of a long-sought cue ball effect in nanometer-scale crystals, in an upcoming Physical Review Letters.

The work is "an important scientific advance," says Arthur J. Nozik of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo. He was the first scientist to propose that nanocrystals, sometimes called quantum dots (SN: 3/6//04, p. 157), might exhibit the effect, called impact ionization.

Nozik leads a team that has sought the elusive effect for 6 years. Now, it appears that the Los Alamos researchers have reached the goal first. "We're kind of chagrined," Nozik admits.

In silicon or other semiconductor materials typically used for solar cells, electrons require a minimum energy to break free from atoms and join an electric current. Most often, electrons get that energy kick from solar photons that pack more than that minimum energy.

The nanocrystal findings show that the outcome of the extra energy depends in part on the size of the crystal that absorbs an incoming photon, Klimov says. …

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