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New ORNL solar cell technology cranks up efficiency

Scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory have boosted the light-to-power conversion efficiency of photovoltaics by nearly 80 percent with the creation of a 3-D nanocone-based solar cell platform.

"To solve the entrapment problems that reduce solar cell efficiency, we created a nanocone-based solar cell, invented methods to synthesize these cells and demonstrated improved charge collection efficiency," said Jun Xu, a member of ORNL's Chemical Sciences Division and team leader on the project.

At the laboratory scale scientists established a light-to-power conversion efficiency of 3.2 percent compared to 1.8 percent efficiency of conventional planar structure of the same materials.

Key features of the solar material include its unique electric field distribution that achieves efficient charge transport; the synthesis of nanocones using inexpensive proprietary methods; and the minimization of defects and voids in semiconductors. The latter provides enhanced electric and optical properties for conversion of solar photons to electricity.


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The new solar structure consists of n-type nanocones surrounded by a p-type semiconductor. The n-type nanoncones are made of zinc oxide and serve as the junction framework and the electron conductor. The p-type matrix is made of polycrystalline cadmium telluride and serves as the primary photon absorber medium and hole conductor.

Because of efficient charge transport, the new solar cell can tolerate defective materials and reduce cost in fabricating next-generation solar cells.

Research that forms the foundation of this technology was accepted by this year's Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers photovoltaic specialist conference and will be published in the IEEE Proceedings. The papers are titled "Efficient Charge Transport in Nanocone Tip-Film Solar Cells" and "Nanojunction solar cells based on polycrystalline CdTe films grown on ZnO nanocones."

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