"The University of Toronto device is a stack of two light-absorbing layers – one tuned to capture the sun’s visible rays, the other engineered to harvest the half of the sun’s power that lies in the infrared," said lead co-author Xihua Wang, a post-doctoral fellow. "We needed a breakthrough in architecting the interface between the visible and infrared junction," said Sargent, Canada Research Chair in Nanotechnology. "The team engineered a cascade – really a waterfall – of nanometers-thick materials to shuttle electrons between the visible and infrared layers." This graded recombination strategy enables the visible and infrared light harvesters to be linked together efficiently, without any compromise to either layer.
The team pioneered solar cells made using CQDs, nanoscale materials that can readily be tuned to respond to specific wavelengths of the visible and invisible spectrum. By capturing such a broad range of light waves – wider than normal solar cells – tandem CQD solar cells can in principle reach up to 42 per cent efficiencies. The best single-junction solar cells are constrained to a maximum of 31 per cent efficiency. In reality, solar cells that are on the roofs of houses and in consumer products have 14 to 18 per cent efficiency.
Sargent is hopeful that in five years solar cells using the graded recombination layer published will be integrated into building materials and mobile devices. "The solar community – and the world – needs a solar cell that is over 10 per cent efficient and that dramatically improves on today’s photovoltaic module price points," said Sargent. "This advance lights up a practical path to engineering high-efficiency solar cells that make the best use of the diverse photons making up the sun’s broad palette."