Atwater’s Light-Splitting Solar Cell Could Be 50% Efficient

harry-atwater-caltechThe ability to dissociate light into fundamental colors could make today’s solar panels 50 percent efficient. If you compare this figure to the 20 percent efficiency found in many solar cells on the market, that’s a game-changer.

Harry Atwater, a professor of materials science and applied physics at Caltech thinks he has the solution. The problem is today’s solar cells do not excel at harvesting such a broad spectrum of light that they’re being hit with. They act just like those all-in-one products (and people) that don’t do any of their tasks perfectly.

To tackle this shortcoming of solar cells, Atwater and his colleagues designed a device that splits sunlight (just like a prism) into six to eight component wavelengths (colors) and applies each of them to a solar cell specially designed to handle that color most efficiently.

Atwater’s three main ideas on how he could do this focus on using optical filters, nanoscale optical filters and a hologram instead of filters to split the light into basic components. All of them do the same thing, basically, but he’ll eventually pick the one that’s performing best. He also says the device will be a lot less complex than many of today’s electronics, but will be a game-changer in the solar power business.

His main reason of doing this is that although solar technology has evolved in the past several years and prices have gone down, there’s no point in making them cheaper, since most of the cost involved in a solar power installation comes from labor, wiring, permitting and everything else that’s going to be fixed even if the cells would cost nothing themselves. The only solution, he says, that could make a difference in pricing could be to install less solar panels because they’d be more efficient, and that would increase the ROI of this already-booming industry.


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  • Great article, but I disagree, not with you, but with Atwater on the future of solar. There are other, albeit less efficient technologies being developed to reduce installation costs. One example 3d printed sheets of solar cells from Australia. Another is spary on solar. Finally, First Solar and others are using thin film to reduce the volume and weight of their panels. Anyhow, I can’t wait to see where this goes. All innovation is good for solar.

  • sea1956

    Atwater really hit the nail on the head. Greater efficiencies for solar panels would have a huge impact. His design (or something similar) is going to come to fruition eventually. Solar really can be the answer to our energy problems.