Researchers in Australia have reached a record high in solar conversion efficiency, converting more than 40 percent of the sunlight that hits solar panels into electricity.
In outdoor tests in Sydney and the U.S., University of New South Wales researchers achieved the record efficiency partially by splitting sunlight into four different cells. Traditionally, solar power works by using just one solar cell, a method that can convert up to 33 percent of sunlight into electricity.
“We used commercial solar cells, but in a new way, so these efficiency improvements are readily accessible to the solar industry,” Mark Keevers, a UNSW solar scientist who managed the research project, said in a statement.
RayGen Resources, which helped design the solar prototype and provided technical support to the UNSW researchers, is optimistic about the results. John Lasich, Director and CTO of RayGen, said the company could reach “close to 45 percent system efficiency in the next few years.”
The scientists were able to design the solar test prototype in a way that would capture the sunlight that’s typically wasted by solar cells. The test used concentrated solar photovoltaic technology, which has historically been risky in terms of price and reliability, making it difficult technology to scale up. The design used in the test is “particularly relevant” to solar power towers being designed in Australia right now by RayGen Resources, UNSW Professor Martin Green said.
Those involved with the project are hoping the researchers’ discovery will eventually help drive down the cost of solar, if the results are able to be replicated on a larger scale.
“We hope to see this home grown innovation take the next steps from prototyping to pilot scale demonstrations,” Ivor Frischknecht, CEO of the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, which provided funding to the project, said. “Ultimately, more efficient commercial solar plants will make renewable energy cheaper, increasing its competitiveness.”
Researchers continue to get better and better at turning sunlight into electricity. Last year, Silicon Valley solar manufacturer Alta Devices set what was then a record of 30.8 percent conversion efficiency, using an extremely thin solar cell that, though more expensive than a typical solar cell, ended up being able to create a large amount of electricity from just a small amount of surface area. That small size makes these cells useful for small devices such as cell phones, tablets, smoke detectors and watches.
Solar has also been a field of major innovation over the last several years, with researchers developing cells that can be stretched across parking lots and sprayed onto roofs. Researchers have also developed transparent solar modules that can be applied to windows, and last month, the Netherlands unveiled the world’s first solar bike lane.