17 November 2010

A New Twist for Nanopillar Light Collectors

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Sunlight represents the cleanest, greenest and far and away most abundant of all energy sources, and yet its potential remains woefully under-utilized. High costs have been a major deterrant to the large-scale applications of silicon-based solar cells

Nanopillars – densely packed nanoscale arrays of optically active semiconductors – have shown potential for providing a next generation of relatively cheap and scalable solar cells, but have been hampered by efficiency issues. The nanopillar story, however, has taken a new twist and the future for these materials now looks brighter than ever.

“By tuning the shape and geometry of highly ordered nanopillar arrays of germanium or cadmium sulfide, we have been able to drastically enhance the optical absorption properties of our nanopillars,” says Ali Javey, a chemist who holds joint appointments with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) and the University of California (UC) at Berkeley.

Javey, a faculty scientist with Berkeley Lab’s Materials Sciences Division and a UC Berkeley professor of electrical engineering and computer science, has been at the forefront of nanopillar research. He and his group were the first to demonstrate a technique by which cadmium sulfide nanopillars can be mass-produced in large-scale flexible modules. In this latest work, they were able to produce nanopillars that absorb light as well or even better than commercial thin-film solar cells, using far less semiconductor material and without the need for anti-reflective coating.

“To enhance the broad-band optical absorption efficiency of our nanopillars we used a novel dual-diameter structure that features a small (60 nanometers) diameter tip with minimal reflectance to allow more light in, and a large (130 nanometers) diameter base for maximal absorbtion to enable more light to be converted into electricity,” Javey says. “This dual-diameter structure absorbed 99-percent of incident visible light, compared to the 85 percent absorbtion by our earlier nanopillars, which had the same diameter along their entire length.”


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