Solar-power device would use heat to enhance efficiency

New approach developed at MIT could generate power from sunlight efficiently and on demand.

01/19/2014


Image courtesy: Andrej Lenert, associate professor of mechanical engineering Evelyn Wang, physics professor Marin Soljačić, principal research scientist Ivan Celanović, MIT graduate students David Bierman, Walker Chan and former postdoc Youngsuk Nam, MassA 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.

Image courtesy: Andrej Lenert, associate professor of mechanical engineering Evelyn Wang, physics professor Marin Soljačić, principal research scientist Ivan Celanović, MIT graduate students David Bierman, Walker Chan and former postdoc Youngsuk Nam, MassThe design of the two-layer absorber-emitter material is key to this improvement. Its outer layer, facing the sunlight, is an array of multiwalled carbon nanotubes, which very efficiently absorbs the light’s energy and turns it to heat. This layer is bonded tightly to a layer of a photonic crystal, which is precisely engineered so that when it is heated by the attached layer of nanotubes, it “glows” with light whose peak intensity is mostly above the bandgap of the adjacent PV, ensuring that most of the energy collected by the absorber is then turned into electricity.

In their experiments, the researchers used simulated sunlight, and found that its peak efficiency came when its intensity was equivalent to a focusing system that concentrates sunlight by a factor of 750. This light heated the absorber-emitter to a temperature of 962° C. 

This level of concentration is already much lower than in previous attempts at STPV systems, which concentrated sunlight by a factor of several thousand. But the MIT researchers say that after further optimization, it should be possible to get the same kind of enhancement at even lower sunlight concentrations, making the systems easier to operate.

Such a system, the team says, combines the advantages of solar photovoltaic systems, which turn sunlight directly into electricity, and solar thermal systems, which can have an advantage for delayed use because heat can be more easily stored than electricity. The new solar thermophotovoltaic systems, they say, could provide efficiency because of their broadband absorption of sunlight; scalability and compactness, because they are based on existing chip-manufacturing technology; and ease of energy storage, because of their reliance on heat.

Image courtesy: Andrej Lenert, associate professor of mechanical engineering Evelyn Wang, physics professor Marin Soljačić, principal research scientist Ivan Celanović, MIT graduate students David Bierman, Walker Chan and former postdoc Youngsuk Nam, MassSome of the ways to further improve the system are quite straightforward. Since the intermediate stage of the system, the absorber-emitter, relies on high temperatures, its size is crucial: The larger an object, the less surface area it has in relation to its volume, so heat losses decline rapidly with increasing size. The initial tests were done on a 1-cm chip, but follow-up tests will be done with a 10-cm chip, they say.

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.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

www.mit.edu 

- Edited by CFE Media. See more Control Engineering energy and power stories.



No comments
Consulting-Specifying Engineer's Product of the Year (POY) contest is the premier award for new products in the HVAC, fire, electrical, and...
Consulting-Specifying Engineer magazine is dedicated to encouraging and recognizing the most talented young individuals...
The MEP Giants program lists the top mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and fire protection engineering firms in the United States.
2014 Product of the Year finalists: Vote now; Boiler systems; Indirect cooling; Integrating lighting, HVAC
High-performance buildings; Building envelope and integration; Electrical, HVAC system integration; Smoke control systems; Using BAS for M&V
Pressure piping systems: Designing with ASME; Lab ventilation; Lighting controls; Reduce energy use with VFDs
Case Study Database

Case Study Database

Get more exposure for your case study by uploading it to the Consulting-Specifying Engineer case study database, where end-users can identify relevant solutions and explore what the experts are doing to effectively implement a variety of technology and productivity related projects.

These case studies provide examples of how knowledgeable solution providers have used technology, processes and people to create effective and successful implementations in real-world situations. Case studies can be completed by filling out a simple online form where you can outline the project title, abstract, and full story in 1500 words or less; upload photos, videos and a logo.

Click here to visit the Case Study Database and upload your case study.

Protecting standby generators for mission critical facilities; Selecting energy-efficient transformers; Integrating power monitoring systems; Mitigating harmonics in electrical systems
Commissioning electrical systems in mission critical facilities; Anticipating the Smart Grid; Mitigating arc flash hazards in medium-voltage switchgear; Comparing generator sizing software
Integrating BAS, electrical systems; Electrical system flexibility; Hospital electrical distribution; Electrical system grounding
As brand protection manager for Eaton’s Electrical Sector, Tom Grace oversees counterfeit awareness...
Amara Rozgus is chief editor and content manager of Consulting-Specifier Engineer magazine.
IEEE power industry experts bring their combined experience in the electrical power industry...
Michael Heinsdorf, P.E., LEED AP, CDT is an Engineering Specification Writer at ARCOM MasterSpec.