Can 3-D Solar Cells Deliver Revolutionary Efficiency?

Three-dimensional solar power is a legitimate technology, one that is being investigated and developed by serious scientists. Whether the company Solar3D is a legitimate participant in this innovative technology remains to be seen.

This week, Solar3D released a news release touting their 3-D solar cell design that as yet is still under development. “Our 3D cell can deliver a high conversion efficiency of 25 percent,” claimed Solar3D CEO Jim Nelson, adding that the “cell can deliver 200 percent more power output than conventional solar cells.”

In a June 2011 with Forbes magazine, Nelson made the same claims, announcing then that a 3D prototype would be available by the end of 2011. While Forbes reported the claims, they seemed to be more interested in Nelson’s views on government subsidies. “They support broken technology,” Nelson said.

Nelson argued that the government should subsidize those who are developing innovative solar technology but not solar rebate programs that reduce the cost of installations. Prior to his involvement with Solar3D, Nelson spent 20 years in the private equity industry.

News about 3-D solar cell technology has been bouncing around for about five years, with various scientists and universities taking credit, including wunderkind William Yuan, who received a scholarship and Davidson Fellow award for a 3-D design that he created when he was only 12 years old.

Researchers at the Electro-Optical Systems Laboratory at the Georgia Tech Research Institute have been working on 3-D solar since 2007. Details of their ongoing research design was described in the March 2007 issue of the technical journal JOM. Their research is sponsored in part by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, with the goal of developing 3-D solar technology that can be utilized in space.

The Georgia Tech research is experimenting with tower structures that are only 40 microns square, built from arrays that contain millions of carbon nanotubes. Solar3D describes their technology as a “multi-facetted 3-D photovoltaic structure where photons can bounce off many surfaces until all photons that can be absorbed by the material are absorbed.”

Solar3D hired their Chief Scientific Advisor, Nadir Dagli, in November 2011, five months after the Forbes interview. Previously, Dagli was Chief Scientific Advisor for another solar startup, HyperSolar, a company that claims that their solar technology will “increase solar cell power output by as much as 400 percent.”

Solar3D did not say when their 3-D prototype would become available.

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