IBM Improves Solar Efficiency with Low-Cost Materials

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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