Often the clean energy breakthroughs of tomorrow result in the findings of dedicated scientists toiling away in labs at universities. Such is the case today with a rather interesting process discovered by Stanford University engineers that could effectively more than double the efficiency of existing solar cell technology.
The engineers, according to the university, say the breakthrough simultaneously uses the light and heat of the sun to more efficiently generate electricity through a process called photon enhanced thermionic emission (PETE). This process, as a conceptual breakthrough, is seen as a new energy conversion method that is said to surpass “the efficiency of existing photovoltaic and thermal conversion technologies.” With it, it is believed, solar power and its related devices could potentially be made more commercially viable by being cheap enough to compete with oil.
Photovoltaic systems never get hot enough for their waste heat to be useful in thermal energy conversion, according to the engineers on the project, but the high temperatures at which PETE performs are perfect for generating usable high-temperature waste heat. It is calculated that the PETE process “can get to 50 percent efficiency or more under solar concentration, but if combined with a thermal conversion cycle, could reach 55 or even 60 percent – almost triple the efficiency of existing systems.”
“This is really a conceptual breakthrough, a new energy conversion process, not just a new material or a slightly different tweak,” said Nick Melosh, an assistant professor of materials science and engineering, who led the research group, in a statement. “It is actually something fundamentally different about how you can harvest energy.”