Princeton researchers have found a simple and economical way to nearly triple the efficiency of organic solar cells, the cheap and flexible plastic devices that many scientists believe could be the future of solar power.

With their new metallic sandwich, the researchers were able to address both problems. The sandwich — called a subwavelength plasmonic cavity — has an extraordinary ability to dampen reflection and trap light. The new technique allowed Chou's team to create a solar cell that only reflects about 4 percent of light and absorbs as much as 96 percent. It demonstrates 52 percent higher efficiency in converting light to electrical energy than a conventional solar cell.

That is for direct sunlight. The structure achieves even more efficiency for light that strikes the solar cell at large angles, which occurs on cloudy days or when the cell is not directly facing the sun. By capturing these angled rays, the new structure boosts efficiency by an additional 81 percent, leading to the 175 percent total increase.

The physics behind the innovation is formidably complex. But the device structure, in concept, is fairly simple.

The top layer, known as the window layer, of the new solar cell uses an incredibly fine metal mesh: the metal is 30 nanometers thick, and each hole is 175 nanometers in diameter and 25 nanometers apart. (A nanometer is a billionth of a meter and about one hundred-thousandth the width of human hair). This mesh replaces the conventional window layer typically made of a material called indium-tin-oxide (ITO).

The mesh window layer is placed very close to the bottom layer of the sandwich, the same metal film used in conventional solar cells. In between the two metal sheets is a thin strip of semiconducting material used in solar panels. It can be any type — silicon, plastic or gallium arsenide — although Chou's team used an 85-nanometer-thick plastic.

The solar cell's features — the spacing of the mesh, the thickness of the sandwich, the diameter of the holes — are all smaller than the wavelength of the light being collected. This is critical because light behaves in very unusual ways in subwavelength structures. Chou's team discovered that using these subwavelength structures allowed them to create a trap in which light enters, with almost no reflection, and does not leave.

In addition to a direct boost to the cells' efficiency, the new nanostructured metal film also replaces the current ITO electrode that is the most expensive part of most current organic solar cells.

The nanostructured metal film is also promising for silicon solar panels that now dominate the market. Because the PlaCSH sandwich captures light independent of what electricity-generating material is used as the middle layer, it should boost efficiency of silicon panels as well. It also can reduce the thickness of the silicon used in traditional silicon solar panels by a thousand-fold, which could substantially decrease manufacturing costs and allow the panels to become more flexible.

This story is reprinted from material from Princeton University, with editorial changes made by Materials Today. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of Elsevier. Link to original source.