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Molecular Sandwich Could Boost Solar Cell Efficiency by 35%

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by Tina Casey

Working on a molecular level, scientists at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the University of Colorado are developing a crystalline “sandwich” that could increase the efficiency of solar cells by 35%. The process is delicate but if it can be commercialized, it would bring down the cost of solar energy and give a big boost to ambitious international solar projects like DESERTEC and the Sahara Solar Breeder.

Building a Better Photovoltaic Cell

The new breakthrough is actually based on old research into a “somewhat obscure phenomenon” called singlet fission. Thirty years ago, singlet fission was known to occur in single tetracene crystals (tetracene occurs as an orange powder, and it can be used to make organic light emitting diodes). There the state of knowledge stalled. However, eventually researchers began a wider search for crystals that would make more efficient hosts for the phenomenon, and they identified a molecule with the tongue twisting name 1,3-diphenylisobenzofuran (DPIBF). When used to fabricate thin films, molecules of DIPBF self-assemble into a “sandwich type orientation” that is ideal for producing a high rate of singlet fission.

Fossil Fuels and Solar Energy

Even in the unlikely event that cost effective carbon capture technology can be developed to reduce or eliminate global warming emissions from oil and coal, fossil fuels are still on the way out.  Here is the conundrum: relatively low-risk sources for oil and coal are being tapped out, so harvesting has shifted to higher risk, higher impact practices such as deep ocean drilling and blowing up entire mountains.  Meanwhile, pushback is coming from global population, which is increasing, which in turn makes it necessary to step up the protection of environments that support human life (including food sources), and not rip them apart as an energy source. Developing solar energy and other low risk, low impact alternatives is the long term solution.

Image: Sunlight by Viditu on flickr.com.

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