New photodetector prototype could increase solar photovoltaic efficiency

New research invokes quantum mechanical processes that occur when two atomically thin materials are stacked together


Physicists at the University of California, Riverside have developed a prototype photodetector, a device that senses light, by combining two distinct inorganic materials and producing quantum mechanical processes that could revolutionize the way solar energy is collected.

“We are seeing a new phenomenon occurring,” said Nathaniel M. Gabor, an assistant professor of physics, who led the research team. “Normally, when an electron jumps between energy states, it wastes energy. In our experiment, the waste energy instead creates another electron, doubling its efficiency. Understanding such processes, together with improved designs that push beyond the theoretical efficiency limits, will have a broad significance with regard to designing new ultra-efficient photovoltaic devices.”

In existing solar panels models, one photon can at most generate one electron. In the prototype the researchers developed, one photon can generate two electrons or more through a process called electron multiplication.

“These materials, being only an atom thick, are nearly transparent,” he said. “It’s conceivable that one day we might see them included in paint or in solar cells incorporated into windows. Because these materials are flexible, we can envision their application in wearable photovoltaics, with the materials being integrated into the fabric. We could have, say, a suit that generates power — energy-harvesting technology that would be essentially invisible.”

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