IBM Improves Solar Efficiency with Low-Cost Materials

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IBM researchers have increased by 40 percent the efficiency of a thin solar cell that can be applied like ink and that uses widely available materials.

The new cells can convert solar energy into electricity with an efficiency of 9.6 percent, a significant improvement on the 6.7 percent high for existing technologies and close to the level that would make the cells practical for use in commercial solar panels, according to a report published in the journal Advanced Materials.

The new technology uses a semiconductor material made of fairly abundant elements — including copper, zinc, tin, sulfur and selenium — and utilizes an inexpensive ink-based process in creating the cell.

Experts say some existing solar technologies have limited long-term potential because of the cost or relative rareness of materials used. For instance, the leading “thin film” solar cell technology currently in existence uses a material that includes tellurium, a rare element that limits the ability to mass produce the solar cells.

Matthew Bear, a senior scientist at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, called the IBM advance a “breakthrough for this technology.”

Researchers hope to reach an efficiency of 12 percent in the laboratory in order to convince manufacturers of the technology’s commercial viability.

Article appearing courtesy Yale Environment 360.

photo: Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

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Yale Environment 360 is an online magazine offering opinion, analysis, reporting and debate on global environmental issues. We feature original articles by scientists, journalists, environmentalists, academics, policy makers, and business people, as well as multimedia content and a daily digest of major environmental news. Yale Environment 360 is published by the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and Yale University. We are funded in part by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The opinions and views expressed in Yale Environment 360 are those of the authors and not of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies or of Yale University.

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