What’s Next: 3D Solar Cells to revolutionize the photovoltaic industry
Decoding 3D solar Cells
Solar technology is in itself a relatively ‘young’ energy source compared to fossil fuels when it comes to generating electricity out of it. But the power of the sun is what has shaped our planet and sustained life from the day it came into existence, and, in that regard it is the oldest and definitely the prime energy source. Although the last couple of decades have seen an incredible increase in the use of photovoltaic panels to capture solar power. It has emerged as the single clear leader in terms of alternate power sources and its wide availability along with consistency and efficiency are the reasons for that. Scientists now believe that it is time to move ahead and take solar panels to the next level with the advent of the 3D Solar Cells.
3D solar cells are still at an early stage of development, nonetheless they do hold an incredible promise. The intrinsic structure of these installations is such that it maximizes solar energy and increases efficiency several fold. Almost all the light that falls on 3D solar cells is converted into energy.
Why should we embrace the change?
This one is simply a no brainer to anyone who has been following global climate changes and how carbon emissions have affect temperatures across the planet. Turning to green energy is no longer an option, but the only ‘smart way’ forward and at the moment that ‘smart’ money is on solar energy. This technology is now being taken a step further with researchers trying their best to develop 3D Solar Cells that can be commercially viable installations in the coming decade or so. The 3D solar cells, with a tower like structure on the inside captures all of the light falling on them and from many different angles. This allows for synthesis of clean technology of the future that is both efficient and ergonomic. That surely is the way ahead in a world where fossil fuels are becoming scarcer by the day.
The Next Dimension
3D Solar Cells from MIT
This is a very unique approach taken up by researchers at MIT, who have built cubes that are shaped like towers and actually extend upwards, instead of the flat panel photovoltaic panels that we see today. The design has been created in a more macro scale than with nanotechnology variations within the PV panel structure. The 3D solar cells are a lot more efficient than conventional flat panels and also produce energy more consistently.
The Difference Maker
What separates these cubic 3D solar cells from the flat panel ones and gives them that extra efficiency and consistency is their design that captures maximum sunlight even when the sun is closer to the horizon. This ensures that the MIT designed solar cells capture more photons and turn them into electricity. The power supply is pretty consistent even during early mornings, late evenings and on cloudy days. Even power generation in winter is higher when compared to current PV panels due to the 3D design.
Like with every new technology, the 3D solar cells also need more development and currently the biggest hindrance for this model when it comes to going commercial is economic constraints. The technology for synthesis of such cells is still not economically viable at this point of time.
3D Solar cells from Georgia Tech Research Institute
Researchers at GTRI have developed a 3D solar cell that is truly 3D at a nano scale. Inside these flat looking photovoltaic panels are vertical carbon nanotube structures that are like mini tower and sky scrapers, which measure 100 microns tall and 40 microns by 40 microns square. These vertically arranged carbon nanotubes ensure that all incident light is converted into energy and reflection is kept to an absolute minimum.
The Difference Maker
The carbon nanotube towers trap almost every single photon that is incident on the 3D solar cells and thanks to their vertical design; the angle of incidence of sunlight does not affect efficiency all that much. Because the towers can absorb light from various angles by trapping it, you will get optimum efficiency throughout the day.
This carbon nanotube technology still has a long way to go before it goes commercial. Scientists will have to find ways to scale up the process of synthesizing such 3D solar cells so that they can be used in commercial installations.
Solar3D plans for 3D Solar Roof Tiles
The idea from Solar3D, a California based solar company, is to integrate 3D solar cells into roof tiles, instead of putting them up as separate additions to rooftops across the world. This basically means that if Solar3D is successful, then you can simply build your home using the roof tiles that already have 3D solar cell units incorporated in them. This saves costs, time and additional building work that come with installing separate solar panels.
The Difference Maker
While lots of people have delved into the idea of creating 3D solar cells that are commercially viable, Solar3D are the only ones who have decided to go all out and integrate them directly into roof tiles. The addition of 3D solar cells into roof tiles does mean that you get a consistent, efficient and ergonomic solar installation that provides maximum possible output throughout the day and in all seasons.
The idea of creating 3D solar cells that are commercially viable is hard enough at this point of time. Integrating them into roof tiles seems a bit more far fetched. Of course, if Solar3D can achieve the first with fair success, the next step should be a bit easier. But do not hold your breath on these.
3D Solar cells that work underground
While all the solar technology that has been on offer till today compels us to expose the photovoltaic panels to sunshine as much as possible, and that is only natural. Scientists at Georgia Institute of Technology are working on 3D solar cells that will technically work from ‘underground’. The idea here is not to expose the entire surface of the solar cell, but only the tip of optical fibers that will get the job done.
The Difference Maker
In these 3D solar cells optical fibers are incorporated with Zinc oxide nanostructures on the top, which are then covered with ‘dye sensitized’ substance that converts light into electricity. The solar energy generated is captured using a liquid electrolyte and this system is far more efficient than plane zinc oxide solar cells with the same surface area. The technology allows designers to work with solar energy without having to expose large flat surfaces covered with PV panels.
Apart from still being in a nascent stage, the actual conversion efficiency that scientists have reached so far with this new model is as little as 3.3 percent. Long way to go still, before these optical fiber based 3D solar cells replace conventional installations.