Wow. What a time for solar energy. On top of recent gains in plastic and thin-film photovoltaics the University of Delaware now reports the world’s most efficient solar cell at 42.8% — if the finding is confirmed it will boost high-end PV output an incredible 2.1% over the previous record set by Boeing-subsidiary SpectroLab last December (see my presentation of their approach at MIT Technology Review: “Ultra-efficient Photovoltaics”).
The University of Delaware advance is notable for (a) the incredible consortium assembled to bring together the multiple PV cells employed in the record-breaking cell, (b) the role of government funding — in this case its dollars from DARPA that were yanked out of the hands of another set of researchers developing plastic solar cells, and (c) the comeback it represents for Allen Barnett, the University of Delaware scientist leading the effort.
Barnett founded what was once the most successful solar U.S. solar producer, AstroPower, which made its mark producing photovoltaics from recycled silicon wafers. The firm took a blow when the tech bubble burst and semiconductor manufacturing slowed, causing a shortage of recycled wafers, and was then destroyed by an accounting scandal. GE picked up AstroPower’s assets in bankruptcy proceedings in 2004 — adding one more piece in the energy giant’s sweep into renewable energy (see “The Greening of GE” for more on that story).