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Nanopillar semiconductors shape up for better, cheaper solar cells

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November 22, 2010

Chemist Ali Javey, who led development of the tapered nanopillars (Photo: Berkeley Lab)

Chemist Ali Javey, who led development of the tapered nanopillars (Photo: Berkeley Lab)

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Solar cells could become more efficient and less expensive, thanks to the development of tapered nanopillar semiconductors that are narrow at the top and wide at the bottom. Created by chemist Ali Javey and his group from California’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the two-micron-high nanopillars’ unique shape allows them to collect as much or more light than conventional semiconductors, while using much less material.

“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 absorption to enable more light to be converted into electricity,” said Javey. “This dual-diameter structure absorbed 99 percent of incident visible light, compared to the 85 percent absorption by our earlier nanopillars, which had the same diameter along their entire length.”

A schematic of a germanium nanopillar array embedded in an alumina foil membrane (left), a...

Research has shown that 3D arrays of nanopillars collect light as well or better than existing solar cells, while using less semiconductor material – they require less than half of what is needed for thin-film solar cells made of compound semiconductors like cadmium telluride, and about one tenth of what is required for bulk silicon solar cells. Up until now, however, fabricating such nanopillars was a very involved process.

Using a two-step anodization process, Javey and his team created an array of tiny pores in 2.5mm-thick alumina foil. A particle of gold was placed in each pore, to serve as a growth catalyst. As the nanopillars grew, the pores served as molds, allowing them to take on their tapered shape. By altering the shape of the molds, the team were able to create nanopillars that were circular, square or rectangular when viewed end-on – this could allow them to be fine-tuned for specific applications.

Javey stated that his system could be used to create nanopillars from a variety of semiconductor materials. Cadmium sulfide/telluride appears to be the best material for making nanopillars for use in solar cells, although nanopillars made from germanium could also be used to absorb infrared light in detection devices.

The research was recently published in the journal Nano Letters.

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away.   All articles by Ben Coxworth
2 Comments

For as many as these cheaper and better solar panel articles we see we should be able to run our whole house from a 1 square foot panel that they pay you to put on your house.

Scott_T
22nd November, 2010 @ 05:14 pm PST

I agree with Scott_T! All these groups reporting their developments of new ways to improve PVCs (Photo-Voltaic Cells), should start working together, finding ways to combine all these technologies where possible. Within maybe two or three years, we should be seeing all kinds of devices with very cheap, tiny cells on them that harvest more than enough solar power to power the device 24/7, regardless of how much energy it requires.

BoilingOil
25th November, 2010 @ 04:31 pm PST
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