Radio waves are a type of electromagnetic energy, and when they're picked up by traditional metallic antennas, the electrons that are generated can be converted into an electrical current. Given that optical waves are also a type of electromagnetic energy, a team of scientists from Tel Aviv University wondered if these could also be converted into electricity, via an antenna. It turns out that they can - if the antenna is very, very short. These "nanoantennas" could replace the silicon semiconductors in special solar panels, which could harvest more energy from a wider spectrum of sunlight than is currently possible.

The nanoantennas are constructed out of small amounts of aluminum and gold, and are each less than a micron in length - because light has such a short wavelength (as compared to radio waves), short antennas provide the optimal absorption. After being created, the nanoantennas were then exposed to light, to determine how well they could receive and transmit light energy. According to the initial tests, 95 percent of the wattage being absorbed by the antennas was passed along, with only 5 percent being wasted.

Not only are the nanoantennas efficient, but when their length is varied, the wavelength that they can absorb changes. Therefore, the researchers believe that one panel containing a variety of lengths of otherwise-identical nanoantennas could harvest energy from a much broader solar spectrum than is presently allowed by semiconductor technology.

To that end, the Tel Aviv team is now in the process of creating experimental plastic solar panels, nano-imprinted with varying lengths and shapes of nanoantennas. They are also looking into the electromagnetic-energy-to-electrical-current conversion process, with hopes of improving it.

Although silicon is not a particularly expensive material, the scientists believe that the superior efficiency of their panels could allow them to be smaller than present photovoltaic panels, and thus more cost-effective.

Similar research is also under way at the Idaho National Laboratory, where researchers have been developing plastic sheet solar panels stamped with nanoantennas.