Scientists have known since 1961 that the absolute limit for the amount of energy that can be harvested from sunlight hitting a typical solar cell is about 33.5%. However, for almost five decades researchers have been unable to come close to achieving this theoretical efficiency. But now, Eli Yablonovitch and his graduate student Owen Miller from the University of California, Berkeley have designed and built a new type of solar cell that gets closer to that limit by mimicking the behaviour of a light-emitting diode. That is to the say the solar cell is highly capable of absorbing light as well as emitting it. In fact, it is the controlled emission of light that has boosted the efficiency.

The researchers have shown that the better a solar cell is at emitting photons, the higher its voltage is and the greater its efficiency. "[The result] is almost paradoxical and counterintuitive. It can be quite confusing to grasp at first," says Yablonovitch, as he tells physicsworld.com that he and his colleagues discovered the connection while trying to resolve the large gap between the theoretical and achieved limits for solar-cell efficiency.

Managing photons

The solution lay in a mathematical connection between absorption and emission of light – a phenomenon better understood as "photon management". Conventionally, photon management involves controlling the photons incident on a solar cell so that a photon ejects as many electrons as possible, thereby generating the maximum amount of electric current. "But there is another aspect to photon management, in that we manage not only the incident light, but also the emitted light. Emitted photons sometimes get 'lost' within the cell, so what we do is make sure those photons are emitted," explains Yablonovitch. In a conventional solar cell, photons from the Sun hit a semiconductor material, knocking electrons loose and allowing them to flow freely. But this process can also generate new photons, in a process known as "luminescent emission". As there is a fundamental thermodynamic link between absorption and emission, designing solar cells to emit light causes an increase in the voltage produced by the device.

The researchers' novel concept has been put into practice by a company called Alta Devices, which was co-founded by Yablonovitch and California Institute of Technology physicist Harry Atwater in 2007. The firm was set up specifically to produce economic and high-energy solar cells. The new prototype solar cell is made of gallium arsenide, a material often used to make solar cells for satellites. The result is a device that operates at 28.6% efficiency.

First to put into practice

While the theory of luminescent emission causing an increase in voltage has been known for a while, it has never been put into practice. "It is somewhat puzzling why it has never been used in the field of solar-cell development until now. But a lack of certain requirements might explain that," says Yablonovitch. He goes on to say that solar cells are "grown" on substrates that are generally of poor quality and act as "sinks" for the emitted luminescent photons, which are then lost. The new cell made by Alta Devices is separated from the substrate, which delivers a much better performance. "In fact, we separate the substrates on which the cells are grown and then re-use them. This not only helps with efficiency, but it also brings the cost of producing our cells down, and so it is a key factor," says Yablonovitch. He explains that the cells are still as thin (1 µm) as traditional cells and so people are genuinely shocked to know the devices have been developed cheaply using gallium arsenide. Alta Devices is already producing the cells on an industrial scale, with samples being shipped to customers.

Yablonovitch says he hopes researchers will be able to use this technique to achieve efficiencies close to 30% in the coming years. And given that the work applies to all types of solar cells, the findings have implications throughout the field.

The team will present its findings at the Conference on Lasers and Electro Optics to be held in early May in California in the US.

The research is to be published in Journal of Photovoltaics.