Rice touts advancement in solar cell technique

HOUSTON — Researchers at Rice University say they’ve discovered a way to simplify the process used to make solar cell components, which could make the technology less expensive to produce.

Solar cells are covered with a coating that protects the active elements that convert sunlight into electricity. Most light can easily pass through that coating, but about 6 percent of it is reflected. In other words, not all light exposed to solar cells results in electricity.

In the 1980s, scientists developed a material called black silicon that features minuscule spikes that often are applied to solar cells and allow more than 99 percent of sunlight to reach the active elements that turn it into electricity. As a result, when black silicon is used as a coating, almost no light is reflected and wasted.

Video: University adapts solar panel coating for clothing

Rice chemist Andrew Barron and graduate student Yen-Tien Lu say they’ve developed a new, simpler technique to create black silicon than the industry norm. It requires one-step — the existing standard requires two — and it can happen at room temperature, unlike other chemical reactions that require extremes.

Their process involves a mix of copper nitrate, phosphorus acid, hydrogen fluoride and water that’s applied to a silicon wafer. Next, the team will develop a way to speed up the eight-hour process their technique requires.

Their findings were published this month in Royal Society of Chemistry’s Journal of Materials Chemistry A.

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