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Improving Solar Generation Efficiency with Solar Modules

California Institute of Technology (CalTech)
Optics for Full Spectrum, Ultrahigh Efficiency Solar Energy Conversion
Program: 
ARPA-E Award: 
$2,398,749
Location: 
Pasadena, CA
Project Term: 
03/28/2013 to 09/27/2016
Project Status: 
ALUMNI
Technical Categories: 
Critical Need: 
Photovoltaic (PV) solar electric systems are a growing clean energy alternative to traditional sources of electricity generation, such as coal-burning power plants. One of the biggest obstacles to the widespread deployment of PV systems is the fact that they are rarely cost competitive with conventional sources of electricity. New PV technologies must improve solar energy conversion efficiency while driving down costs in order to make them broadly competitive with traditional power generation methods and help position the U.S. as a leader in the global renewable electricity industry.
Project Innovation + Advantages: 
Caltech is developing a solar module that splits sunlight into individual color bands to improve the efficiency of solar electricity generation. For PV to maintain momentum in the marketplace, the energy conversion efficiency must increase significantly to result in reduced power generation costs. Most conventional PV modules provide 15-20% energy conversion efficiency because their materials respond efficiently to only a narrow band of color in the sun's spectrum, which represents a significant constraint on their efficiency. To increase the light conversion efficiency, Caltech will assemble a solar module that includes several cells containing several different absorbing materials, each tuned to a different color range of the sun's spectrum. Once light is separated into color bands, Caltech's tailored solar cells will match each separated color band to dramatically improve the overall efficiency of solar energy conversion. Caltech's approach to improve the efficiency of PV solar generation should enable improved cost-competitiveness for PV energy.
Potential Impact: 
If successful, Caltech's solar system would convert greater than 50% of incoming light energy into electrical power at a cost well below $1/watt.
Security: 
Cost-effective PV systems would enable increased U.S. renewable energy use. As electric vehicles become more popular, the ability to power those using renewable energy would decrease our reliance on foreign oil.
Environment: 
Replacing energy systems powered by coal would provide an immediate decrease in greenhouse gas emissions, of which electricity generation accounts for over 40%.
Economy: 
Cost-effective renewable energy alternatives would reduce electricity rates for consumers in locales with renewable portfolio standards or greenhouse gas emissions targets.
Contacts
ARPA-E Program Director: 
Dr. Michael Haney
Project Contact: 
Prof. Harry Atwater
Partners
Spectrolab
Release Date: 
11/28/2012