High-Efficiency Solar Cell Materials

Detailed overview of innovation with sample startups and prominent university research

What it is

Research is ongoing to develop new solar cell materials that offer higher efficiencies and lower production costs compared to traditional silicon-based cells. These materials include perovskites, organic solar cells, and other thin-film technologies.

Impact on climate action

High-Efficiency Solar Cell Materials within Utility Scale Solar PV bolster climate action by maximizing energy conversion rates. By improving solar panel efficiency, these materials enhance renewable energy output, reduce reliance on fossil fuels, and accelerate the transition to clean energy, mitigating carbon emissions and combating climate change.

Underlying
Technology

  • Photovoltaic Effect: The fundamental principle behind solar cells is the photovoltaic effect, which is the conversion of sunlight into electricity. When sunlight strikes a solar cell, it excites electrons within the material, creating an electric current.
  • Semiconductor Materials: Solar cells are typically made from semiconductor materials, such as silicon, which have properties that allow them to absorb sunlight and generate electricity.

TRL : 4-6 (depending on the specific material)

Prominent Innovation themes

  • Perovskite Solar Cells: Perovskites are a class of materials with a unique crystal structure that allows them to efficiently convert sunlight into electricity. Perovskite solar cells have achieved rapid efficiency improvements in recent years and offer the potential for low-cost manufacturing. However, challenges remain in improving their stability and durability.
  • Organic Solar Cells: Organic solar cells use organic semiconductors as the light-absorbing material. These materials are lightweight, flexible, and can be produced using low-cost printing techniques. However, organic solar cells typically have lower efficiencies compared to silicon and perovskite cells.
  • Thin-Film Solar Cells: Thin-film solar cells are made by depositing thin layers of semiconductor materials onto a substrate. These cells can be lightweight and flexible, but their efficiencies are generally lower than those of silicon cells. However, advancements in materials and manufacturing processes are improving the efficiency and affordability of thin-film technologies.
  • Multi-Junction Solar Cells: Multi-junction solar cells combine different semiconductor materials to capture a wider range of the solar spectrum, resulting in higher efficiencies. However, these cells are more complex and expensive to manufacture.
  • Nanotechnology: Nanotechnology is being used to develop new solar cell materials and designs that can improve efficiency and reduce costs. For example, researchers are developing nanostructured materials that can enhance light absorption and charge transport within solar cells.

Other Innovation Subthemes

  • Perovskite Advancements
  • Thin-Film Breakthroughs
  • Multi-Junction Progress
  • Perovskite-Silicon Tandem Cells
  • High-Efficiency Semiconductor Materials
  • Next-Generation Photovoltaics
  • Improving Charge Transport
  • Novel Crystal Structures
  • Nanostructured Materials Development
  • Breakthroughs in Light Absorption
  • Enhancing Solar Spectrum Capture

Sample Global Startups and Companies

  • Oxford PV:
    • Technology Enhancement: Oxford PV focuses on developing perovskite-silicon tandem solar cell technology, which combines perovskite and silicon solar cells to achieve higher energy conversion efficiency. Their innovative approach aims to enhance the performance of traditional silicon solar cells by integrating them with perovskite materials, which have superior light-absorbing properties.
    • Uniqueness of the Startup: Oxford PV stands out for its expertise in perovskite solar cell technology and its efforts to commercialize tandem solar cell solutions. Their technology has the potential to significantly increase the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of solar energy generation, making it a promising solution for addressing the global demand for renewable energy.
    • End-User Segments Addressing: Oxford PV serves solar panel manufacturers, renewable energy developers, and research institutions seeking to improve the performance and efficiency of solar cells. Their tandem solar cell technology offers opportunities for increasing energy yield, reducing the cost of solar electricity, and accelerating the transition to a low-carbon energy future.
  • Saule Technologies:
    • Technology Enhancement: Saule Technologies specializes in the development of perovskite-based thin-film solar cells for various applications, including building-integrated photovoltaics (BIPV) and portable electronics. Their flexible and lightweight solar cells can be integrated into various surfaces, such as windows, facades, and textiles, to generate clean energy.
    • Uniqueness of the Startup: Saule Technologies stands out for its focus on flexible and customizable perovskite solar cell solutions for building and product integration. Their technology offers opportunities for incorporating solar energy generation into architectural designs, consumer products, and smart surfaces, enabling sustainable energy solutions in diverse settings.
    • End-User Segments Addressing: Saule Technologies serves architects, construction companies, electronics manufacturers, and consumer goods producers interested in integrating solar energy generation into their products and designs. Their perovskite-based solar cells offer opportunities for enhancing energy efficiency, reducing carbon emissions, and promoting renewable energy adoption in urban environments.
  • First Solar:
    • Technology Enhancement: First Solar is a leading manufacturer of cadmium telluride (CdTe) thin-film solar modules, known for their high energy conversion efficiency and low environmental impact. Their thin-film solar technology offers advantages in terms of manufacturing cost, energy yield, and environmental sustainability compared to traditional silicon-based solar cells.
    • Uniqueness of the Startup: First Solar stands out for its focus on thin-film solar technology and its large-scale manufacturing capabilities. Their CdTe solar modules are widely deployed in utility-scale solar projects worldwide, contributing to the expansion of renewable energy capacity and the decarbonization of the electricity sector.
    • End-User Segments Addressing: First Solar serves utility companies, solar project developers, and energy investors seeking reliable and cost-effective solar solutions for large-scale power generation. Their thin-film solar modules are deployed in utility-scale solar farms, commercial and industrial installations, and off-grid applications, providing clean and sustainable energy solutions globally.

Sample Research At Top-Tier Universities

  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT):
    • Research Focus: MIT is a leader in research on High-Efficiency Solar Cell Materials, focusing on the development of novel photovoltaic materials, advanced device architectures, and manufacturing processes to enhance the efficiency, reliability, and cost-effectiveness of solar cells.
    • Uniqueness: Their research involves exploring emerging materials, such as perovskites, quantum dots, and organic semiconductors, for next-generation solar cells with superior light absorption, charge transport, and stability properties compared to traditional silicon-based technologies.
    • End-use Applications: Their work has applications in rooftop solar panels, solar farms, and building-integrated photovoltaics (BIPV). For instance, they’re researching tandem solar cell configurations that combine multiple absorber layers with complementary bandgaps to maximize sunlight utilization across the solar spectrum, developing defect-tolerant and moisture-resistant perovskite materials and interfaces that improve the long-term performance and reliability of perovskite solar cells, and investigating scalable deposition techniques, such as spray-coating, inkjet printing, and roll-to-roll processing, for high-throughput and low-cost fabrication of thin-film photovoltaic devices.
  • Stanford University:
    • Research Focus: Stanford University conducts pioneering research on High-Efficiency Solar Cell Materials, investigating advanced semiconductor physics, materials chemistry, and surface engineering approaches to boost the power conversion efficiency and durability of solar cells.
    • Uniqueness: Their research involves designing nanostructured materials, hybrid organic-inorganic interfaces, and light-trapping structures that enhance light absorption, charge separation, and carrier collection in solar cells while mitigating losses from recombination and reflection.
    • End-use Applications: Their work finds applications in portable electronics, wearable devices, and off-grid power systems. For example, they’re researching defect-engineered silicon wafers and passivation layers that minimize carrier recombination and surface reactivity in silicon solar cells, developing plasmonic and photonic nanostructures that manipulate light at the nanoscale and enhance the optical absorption and near-field coupling in thin-film solar absorbers, and investigating self-healing and self-cleaning coatings that mitigate performance degradation and soiling effects in solar panels exposed to harsh environmental conditions.
  • National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL):
    • Research Focus: NREL is at the forefront of research on High-Efficiency Solar Cell Materials, leveraging its expertise in materials science, device physics, and photovoltaic testing to accelerate the development and commercialization of advanced solar technologies.
    • Uniqueness: Their research involves characterizing the performance, stability, and scalability of emerging photovoltaic materials and device architectures through rigorous experimental testing, modeling, and validation in real-world operating conditions.
    • End-use Applications: Their work has applications in grid-scale renewable energy projects, solar-powered vehicles, and consumer electronics. For instance, they’re researching defect-engineered thin-film chalcogenides and kesterites that offer tunable bandgaps, high absorption coefficients, and low manufacturing costs for thin-film photovoltaic applications, developing III-V multijunction solar cells with record-breaking efficiencies and radiation hardness for space missions and concentrated photovoltaic (CPV) systems, and investigating earth-abundant and environmentally friendly materials, such as copper zinc tin sulfide (CZTS), copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS), and bismuth-based perovskites, for sustainable and scalable solar energy conversion.

commercial_img Commercial Implementation

Commercially, manufacturers produce advanced solar cell materials like perovskite, tandem, or multi-junction cells with improved efficiency and durability. These materials enable higher power outputs and increased energy generation from solar panels. Utility companies and developers integrate these high-efficiency cells into large-scale solar installations, maximizing electricity production.