New Process Yields Better Solar Cells, Faster Chips

Silicon is the common material used in solar cells and computer chips, but gallium arsenide is an alternative material with many advantages. Image: YouTube/Stanford University

Silicon is the common material used in solar cells and computer chips, but gallium arsenide is an alternative material with many advantages.
Image: YouTube/Stanford University

When we think of chips and solar cells, we think of silicon. However, silicon isn’t the only chip-making material out there.

Researchers from Stanford University are turning their attention away from silicon and are looking toward gallium arsenide to make faster chips and more efficient solar cells.

Gallium arsenide is a semiconductor material with extraordinary properties. Electrons can travel six times faster in gallium arsenide than in silicon, allowing for faster operation of transistors. Unfortunately, cost effectiveness is not one of gallium arsenide’s alluring properties—which has caused researchers to opt for the much cheaper and less effective silicon material.

One single wafer of gallium arsenide could cost up to $5,000, whereas the same size wafer of silicon costs only $5.

The team from Stanford saw this problem and set out to solve it. They are now announcing their manufacturing process that could drastically cut the price of gallium arsenide, opening up the possibility for its use in solar panels.

“Solar cells that use gallium arsenide hold the record when it comes to the efficiency at which they convert sunlight into electricity,” said Bruce Clemens, the professor of materials science and engineering who led this work.

The team’s process enables the expensive gallium arsenide chip to be reusable. Their technique is demonstrated in the video below.

“Once it becomes possible to make gallium arsenide more cost-effectively, other people will jump in to improve other parts of the process,” Clemens said. “And with each advance, more uses will open up, especially in solar energy generation where gallium arsenide has clear efficiency advantages.”

[Source: Stanford University]

To learn more about innovations in solar technology and the future of the energy infrastructure, check out our podcast with NREL’s John A. Turner.

And don’t miss his Plenary Session at the 227th ECS Meeting in Chicago this May!

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