A team of researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology has come up with a new way to capture solar energy that makes it easier to store and be used on demand at a later time.
The team created a device that improves the efficiency of solar panels by using wavelengths of light that normally are wasted because they cannot be captured by conventional photovoltaic cells. In this new system, the sun heats a high-temperature material, a two-layer absorber-emitter device placed over the PV cells. The outer sunlight-facing layer, the absorber, includes an array of multi-walled carbon nanotubes that efficiently absorbs the light’s energy and turns it into heat. A bonded layer of silicon/silicon dioxide photonic crystals, the emitter, is engineered to convert the heat back into light that can then be captured by the PV cells. This allows much more of the energy in the sunlight to be turned into electricity.
This new system combines the advantages of solar photovoltaic systems, which turn sunlight directly into electricity, and solar thermal systems, beneficial for delayed use because heat is more easily stored than electricity. The basic concept has been explored for several years, according to the team.
A lot of work has been done on the theoretical design of surfaces for solar thermophotovoltaic systems (STPVs) and fabrication of single components for potential integration in these systems, says team member Andrej Lenert, an MIT graduate student who expects to be awarded his PhD in mechanical engineering this spring.
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