New All-carbon Solar Cell Harnesses Infrared LightAlternative Energy, Technology Friday, June 22nd, 2012
(MIT News) About 40 percent of the solar energy reaching Earth’s surface lies in the near-infrared region of the spectrum — energy that conventional silicon-based solar cells are unable to harness. But a new kind of all-carbon solar cell developed by MIT researchers could tap into that unused energy, opening up the possibility of combination solar cells — incorporating both traditional silicon-based cells and the new all-carbon cells — that could make use of almost the entire range of sunlight’s energy.
“It’s a fundamentally new kind of photovoltaic cell,” says Michael Strano, the Charles and Hilda Roddey Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT and senior author of a paper describing the new device that was published this week in the journal Advanced Materials.The new cell is made of two exotic forms of carbon: carbon nanotubes and C60, otherwise known as buckyballs. “This is the first all-carbon photovoltaic cell,” Strano says — a feat made possible by new developments in the large-scale production of purified carbon nanotubes. “It has only been within the last few years or so that it has been possible to hand someone a vial of just one type of carbon nanotube,” he says. In order for the new solar cells to work, the nanotubes have to be very pure, and of a uniform type: single-walled, and all of just one of nanotubes’ two possible symmetrical configurations.
Other groups have made photovoltaic (PV) cells using carbon nanotubes, but only by using a layer of polymer to hold the nanotubes in position and collect the electrons knocked loose when they absorb sunlight. But that combination adds extra steps to the production process, and requires extra coatings to prevent degradation with exposure to air. The new all-carbon PV cell appears to be stable in air, Strano says.
The carbon-based cell is most effective at capturing sunlight in the near-infrared region. Because the material is transparent to visible light, such cells could be overlaid on conventional solar cells, creating a tandem device that could harness most of the energy of sunlight. The carbon cells will need refining, Strano and his colleagues say: So far, the early proof-of-concept devices have an energy-conversion efficiency of only about 0.1 percent.
But while the system requires further research and fine-tuning, “we are very much on the path to making very high efficiency near-infrared solar cells,” says Rishabh Jain, a graduate student who was lead author of the paper.
Because the new system uses layers of nanoscale materials, producing the cells would require relatively small amounts of highly purified carbon, and the resulting cells would be very lightweight, the team says. “One of the really nice things about carbon nanotubes is that their light absorption is very high, so you don’t need a lot of material to absorb a lot of light,” Jain says.
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Photo: Rishabh Jain et al