A new approach to harvesting solar energy, developed by MIT researchers, could improve efficiency by using sunlight to heat a high-temperature material whose infrared radiation would then be collected by a conventional photovoltaic cell. This technique could also make it easier to store the energy for later use, the researchers say.

In this case, adding the extra step improves performance, because it makes it possible to take advantage of wavelengths of light that ordinarily go to waste. The process is described in a paper published this week in the journal Nature Nanotechnology, written by graduate student Andrej Lenert, associate professor of mechanical engineering Evelyn Wang, physics professor Marin Soljačić, principal research scientist Ivan Celanović, and three others.

A conventional silicon-based solar cell “doesn’t take advantage of all the photons,” Wang explains. That’s because converting the energy of a photon into electricity requires that the photon’s energy level match that of a characteristic of the photovoltaic (PV) material called a bandgap. Silicon’s bandgap responds to many wavelengths of light, but misses many others.

To address that limitation, the team inserted a two-layer absorber-emitter device — made of novel materials including carbon nanotubes and photonic crystals — between the sunlight and the PV cell. This intermediate material collects energy from a broad spectrum of sunlight, heating up in the process. When it heats up, as with a piece of iron that glows red hot, it emits light of a particular wavelength, which in this case is tuned to match the bandgap of the PV cell mounted nearby.

This basic concept has been explored for several years, since in theory such solar thermophotovoltaic (STPV) systems could provide a way to circumvent a theoretical limit on the energy-conversion efficiency of semiconductor-based photovoltaic devices. That limit, called the Shockley-Queisser limit, imposes a cap of 33.7% on such efficiency, but Wang says that with TPV systems, “the efficiency would be significantly higher — it could ideally be over 80%.”

There have been many practical obstacles to realizing that potential; previous experiments have been unable to produce a STPV device with efficiency of greater than 1%. But Lenert, Wang, and their team have already produced an initial test device with a measured efficiency of 3.2%, and they say with further work they expect to be able to reach 20% efficiency — enough, they say, for a commercially viable product.

Zhuomin Zhang, a professor of mechanical engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology who was not involved in this research, says, “This work is a breakthrough in solar thermophotovoltaics, which in principle may achieve higher efficiency than conventional solar cells because STPV can take advantage of the whole solar spectrum. … This achievement paves the way for rapidly boosting the STPV efficiency.”

The research team also included MIT graduate students David Bierman and Walker Chan, former postdoc Youngsuk Nam, and research scientist Ivan Celanović. The work was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy through MIT’s Solid-State Solar Thermal Energy Conversion (S3TEC) Center, as well as the Martin Family Society, the MIT Energy Initiative, and the National Science Foundation.