A team of researchers led by Stanford professor Shanhui Fan and Paul Braun at University of Illinois may have stumbled onto a real breakthrough in the efficiency, safety and long-term sustainability of solar panels.
Conventional solar cells based on photovoltaic technology have come a long way in recent years, but they’re still missing a big chunk of the electromagnetic spectrum. The silicon semiconductors in a solar cell are geared toward taking infrared light and converting it directly to electricity. Meanwhile, the visible spectrum is lost as heat and longer wavelengths pass through unexploited. A new nano-material being developed by a group of researchers spread across the country could act as a “thermal emitter,” making solar power significantly more efficient by scooping up more of that wasted energy.
What is so significant about this new approach?
This approach to improving solar cells is appealing for a variety of reasons. Both tungsten and hafnium dioxide are extremely plentiful and safe to work with. Thermal emitters also work with existing solar cell technology, making it simple to add them to existing systems. The researchers will continue evaluating other types of ceramics to further improve the heat tolerance of thermal emitters, which may finally see use in photovoltaic systems.