Innovative Solar Cell wins R&D 100 Award

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concentrated photovoltaic collectorR&D magazine covers the newest, nerdiest gear from inventors and scientists. The R&D 100 awards are hailed as the “Oscars of Invention” by the Chicago Tribune. The prestigious award helps push the most promising inventions into the market. Other winners include specialized microscopes and super-hydrophobic coatings.

EMCORE is the proud producer of inverted metamorphic (IMM) solar cells, which are already used on land and in space. The IMM technology recently made an in-orbit efficiency record of 33%. EMCORE is a reputable and successful semiconductor company. Their solar technology has been on my radar for a while now.

Developed in conjunction with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and the Vehicle Systems Directorate of the US Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), the IMM design is comprised of a novel combination of compound semiconductors that enables a superior response to the solar spectrum as compared to conventional multi-junction architecture. Due to its unique design, the IMM cell is approximately one fifteenth the thickness of the conventional multi-junction solar cell and will enable a new class of extremely lightweight, high-efficiency, and flexible solar arrays for space applications. (via news release)

These cells, and their soon-to-be second generation, are good for more than satellites in space. When used with EMCORE’s concentrated photovoltaic systems, they might just push for efficiencies as high as 45%.

So what’s the big deal? For years silicon panels have held the record in solar cell efficiency. These multi-junction solar panels are right behind them but cost less. They’re also much lighter and thinner, which reduces transportation and installation costs.

The terrestrial market for cheap, high efficiency solar systems, especially systems that can scale up for utilities, is already booming around the globe. EMCORE has been developing affordable, scalable CPV systems since 2004, with their first commercial installation in May of 2008. With years of trial and error already behind them, they’re positioned to become one of the major players in CPV within the next few years. Pairing that technology with their award-winning solar cells could give them an edge in a young but growing solar industry.

Though CPV promises to produce a lot of energy while avoiding notoriously expensive materials, there’s always a catch. CPV works best when pointed directly at the sun, so expensive tracking mechanisms are used to shift the entire solar array throughout the day. There’s also the small matter of heat, which can melt some solar cells if you’re not careful. Nevertheless, EMCORE seems confident that they have overcome these obstacles to bring an economically lucrative product to market.

Their second generation IMM solar cells, promising even higher efficiency, are slated to hit the market by 2010. In the meantime, the first generation is already giving silicon cells a run for their money.

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Image via the EMCORE website

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