Bill Scanlon, NREL
January 02, 2013 | 3 Comments
WASHINGTON D.C. -- It takes outside-the-box thinking to outsmart the solar spectrum and set a world record for solar cell efficiency. The solar spectrum has boundaries and immutable rules. No matter how much solar cell manufacturers want to bend those rules, they can't.
So how can we make a solar cell that has a higher efficiency than the rules allow?
That's the question scientists in the III-V Multijunction Photovoltaics Group at the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) faced 15 years ago as they searched for materials they could grow easily that also have the ideal combinations of band gaps for converting photons from the sun into electricity with unprecedented efficiency.
A band gap is an energy that characterizes how a semiconductor material absorbs photons, and how efficiently a solar cell made from that material can extract the useful energy from those photons.
"The ideal band gaps for a solar cell are determined by the solar spectrum," said Daniel Friedman, manager of the NREL III-V Multijunction Photovoltaics Group. "There's no way around that."
But this year, Friedman's team succeeded so spectacularly in bending the rules of the solar spectrum that NREL and its industry partner, Solar Junction, won a coveted R&D 100 award from R&D Magazine for a world-record multijunction solar cell. The three-layered cell, SJ3, converted 43.5% of the energy in sunlight into electrical energy — a rate that has stimulated demand for the cell to be used in concentrator photovoltaic (CPV) arrays for utility-scale energy production.
Last month, that record of 43.5% efficiency at 415 suns was eclipsed with a 44% efficiency at 947 suns. Both records were verified by NREL. This is NREL's third R&D 100 award for advances in ultra-high-efficiency multijunction cells. CPV technology gains efficiency by using low-cost lenses to multiply the sun's intensity, which scientists refer to as numbers of suns.
Friedman says earlier success with multijunction cells — layered semiconductors each optimized to capture different wavelengths of light at their junctions — gave NREL a head start.
The SJ3 cells fit into the market for utility-scale CPV projects. They're designed for application under sunlight concentrated to 1,000 times its normal intensity by low-cost lenses that gather the light and direct it at each cell. In regions of clear atmosphere and intense sunlight, such as the U.S. desert Southwest, CPV has outstanding potential for lowest-cost solar electricity. There is enough available sunlight in these areas to supply the electrical energy needs of the entire United States many times over.
Bending Material to the Band Gaps on the Solar Spectrum
Sunlight is made up of photons of a wide range of energies from roughly zero to four electron volts (eV). This broad range of energies presents a fundamental challenge to conventional solar cells, which have a single photovoltaic junction with a single characteristic band gap energy.
Conventional cells most efficiently convert those photons that very nearly match the band gap of the semiconductors in the cell. Higher-energy photons give up their excess energy to the solar cell as waste heat, while lower-energy photons are not collected by the solar cell, and their energy is completely lost.
This behavior sets a fundamental limit on the efficiency of a conventional solar cell. Scientists overcome this limitation by using multijunction solar cells. Using multiple layers of materials in the cells, they create multiple junctions, each with different band gap energies. Each converts a different energy range of the solar spectrum. An invention in the mid-1980s by NREL's Jerry Olson and Sarah Kurtz led to the first practical, commercial multijunction solar cell, a GaInP/GaAs two-junction cell with 1.85-eV and 1.4-eV bandgaps that was recognized with an R&D 100 award in 1990, and later to the three-junction commercial cell based on GaInP/GaAs/Ge that won an R&D 100 award in 2001.
The researchers at NREL knew that if they could replace the 0.67-eV third junction with one better tuned to the solar spectrum, the resulting cell would capture more of the sun's light throughout the day. But they needed a material that had an atomic structure that matched the lattice of the layer above it — and that also had the ideal band gap.
"We knew from the shape of the solar spectrum and modeling solar cells that what we wanted was a third junction that has a band gap of about 1.0 electron volt, lattice-matched to gallium arsenide," Friedman said. "The lattice match makes materials easier to grow."
They concentrated on materials from the third and fifth columns of the periodic table because these so-called III-V semiconductors have similar crystal structures and ideal diffusion, absorption, and mobility properties for solar cells.
But there was seemingly no way to capture the benefits of the gallium arsenide material while matching the lattice of the layer below, because no known III-V material compatible with gallium arsenide growth had both the desired 1-eV band gap and the lattice-constant match to gallium arsenide.
That changed in the early 1990s, when a research group at NTT Laboratories in Tokyo working on an unrelated problem made an unexpected discovery. Even though gallium nitride has a higher band gap than gallium arsenide, when you add a bit of nitrogen to gallium arsenide, the band gap shrinks — exactly the opposite of what was expected to happen.
"That was very surprising, and it stimulated a great deal of work all over the world, including here at NREL," Friedman said. "It helped push us to start making solar cells with this new dilute nitride material."
Good Band Gaps, but Not So Good Solar Material
The new solar cells NREL developed had two things going for them — and one big issue.
"The good things were that we could make the material very easily, and we did get the band gap and the lattice match that we wanted," Friedman said. "The bad thing was that it wasn't a good solar cell material. It wasn't very good at converting absorbed photons into electrical energy. Materials quality is critical for high-performance solar cells, so this was a big problem."
Still, NREL continued to search for a solution.
"We worked on it for quite a while, and we got to a point where we realized we had to choose between two ways of collecting current from a solar cell," Friedman said. "One way is to let the electrical carriers just diffuse along without the aid of an electric field. That's what you do if you have good material."