Solar cell/panel manufacturers have relied on crystalline silicon as a raw material since a long time, simply because it offers good conversion efficiency and stability over other available options. But despite its so many advantages, it still lacks in one area which is transparency, something that restricts its usage and applications.
But now some Korean researchers have found a practical and inexpensive solution to this problem. This new solution can transform solar panels from opaque to transparent. The method involves punching tiny holes (as small as size of human hair) on the crystalline silicon panels, thus allowing light through without coloring (which is a problem with existing transparent solar panels that have a reddish hue and sub-optimal efficiency).
Transparent solar panels would be a huge boon to our renewable energy efforts, with the potential to replace windows in skyscrapers, replace the sunroofs in cars or perhaps act as electricity-generating phone screens
Making transparent solar panels out of naturally opaque crystalline silicon is one of the most challenging problems in the solar energy field. Most solar cells sacrifice their transparency to maximize their efficiency. The best solar panels/cells on the market have an efficiency of over 20 percent. The transparent neutral-colored solar panels that the research team developed demonstrated long-term stability with a high-power conversion efficiency of 12.2 percent.
“My team members concluded that crystalline silicon is the best material to develop the glass-like, high-efficiency, high-stability, and neutral-colored solar cell,” says Kwanyong Seo, of the Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology (UNIST), co-senior author on the paper along with Seungwoo Lee of Korea University. “At first thought, it was a crazy idea for all of us. The problem was that crystalline silicon is not transparent, so before us, nobody tried to make transparent crystalline silicon with neutral colors.”
Seo says that the see-through solar cell is an ideal material to turn windows into solar panels. “Current solar cells need space. On the ground or enough space on the roof,” he says. “But the roof ratio is getting smaller and smaller compared to the window area.”
Furthermore, most windows are vertically placed, which causes light to hit the windows at a low angle. When hit by low angle light, the electrical current in conventional cells drops nearly 30 percent, while transparent solar cells reduce less than 4 percent — allowing it to utilize solar energy more efficiently.
“We want to replace current windows,” says Seo. “There are many things we have to overcome, such as the regulations by law. We also need to have the mechanical stability and strength to apply our device to replace the current window in the building.”
However, the commercialization of the transparent crystalline silicon is promising. Besides the patterning of the wafers, the fabrication process is similar to conventional solar cells in the industry. The next step for the team is to scale up the device to 25 cm2 (3.88 in2) and increase the efficiency to 15 percent.
“Silicon substrate is a very popular material in the semiconductor industry,” says Seo. “We believe that this vision can apply to many different applications, such as transparent electronics. It can also be applied to mobile devices as an energy source.”