Solar Cells Made Entirely from Carbon Offer Valuable Durability

By Wesley Fenlon

Today's solar panels use materials that are more efficient at converting electricity than carbon, but carbon-based cells would be tougher and could be installed virtually anywhere.

Fact: Carbon nanotubes are awesome. They're incredibly tough and have been used in technology like fake skin and invisibility cloaks. Carbon's durability makes it a no-brainer for future technological advancements in products like solar panels: Stanford University researchers have built the first wholly carbon solar cells that could augment existing solar installations. Traditional silicone-based solar panels aren't going anywhere: the carbon cells are still far less efficient.

The researchers noted that carbon nanomaterials aren't good at collecting electrons, and the photovoltaics in the all-carbon panels were only able to convert about 1 percent of collected light energy into electricity. Silicone panels, on the other hand, can convert about 20 percent of light into electricity. Twenty times the efficiency is, obviously, a significant difference.

But durability is still a huge advantage. Carbon solar cells could eventually be printed. They can flex without breaking. They could be used to coat a building without fear of damage. And even if those cells remain less efficient than silicone panels, they can likely make up for that shortcoming in volume.

The researchers believe that using better carbon materials can increase the conversion efficiency; the roughness of the carbon film "trips up traveling charges," so smoother materials should lead to more efficient cells. Commercial viability comes into play at 10 percent. Pairing silicone and carbon solar cells could be a huge boom for solar power.