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Inspired By Trees, Researchers Use Standing Nanowires To Develop Super-efficient Solar Cells [VIDEO]

Apr 08, 2013 02:34 PM EDT
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A new concept in solar technology is poised to make a huge impact on the affordability of solar energy by blending cutting-edge techniques in nanoengineering with a design as old as the trees.

To come up with a working solar panel that uses 10,000 times less material than traditional models without sacrificing efficiency professor Anna Fontcuberta, of the Swiss technology institute école polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne, looked up, to the trees themselves.

"Trees know exactly how to increase their exposition to the sun by elevating themselves and spreading branches all around to maximize their surface," she said in a video highlighting her design.

Fontcuberta and her team turned the standard solar cell design on its head by developing a nanowire solar cell that mimics the light absorption properties of trees standing in a forest, making it possible for the solar cells to capture much more energy from the sun than previously thought possible. The enhanced light absorption is shown to be due to a light-concentrating property harnessed by standing nanowires like trees.

Though only in prototype state, Fontcuberta's nanowire cell can capture light more efficiently than traditional solar panels. The efficiency is due to the nanowire's unexpected ability to act as a sort of solar funnel. The system was shown to have 33 percent efficiency, while a traditional solar panel has a 20 percent efficiency.

Remarkably, Fontcuberta's design uses 1,000 times less material than current designs.

Fontcuberta says a family that needs 40 kilograms of material, specifically gallium arsenide, to meet their solar energy needs, would require only 40 grams with the new design. Less material equals lower production cost, which could potentially mean that previously unaffordable solar energy projects may have a way to come into reality.

A full report of the research is available at Nature Photonics

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