Sky’s the limit for solar cell innovation as new breakthrough aims for 50 percent conversion rate

50 percent efficiency

Yes you read that right : 50%

One of our favourite subjects — solar cells and more specifically solar cell innovation and breakthroughs — is covered in this week’s SQHQ spray readers.

I think I’ve mentioned, in a previous rant in these pages, one of the enduring memories I have of seeing the famous environmentalist/author/activist Professor David Suzuki in 2007 was his rhetorical question that kicked off the night: why wasn’t every house in Australia covered in solar panels?

Coming from a country (Canada) where sun is in shorter supply, he genuinely didn’t understand why we, as a country, didn’t make use of what he considered to be our major asset: the sun.

The question had a touch of (intentional or unintentional) irony in that it took place at the UNSW, now recognised as one of the world’s leaders in photovoltaics and solar cell innovation.

But that was around seven years ago and in that short time, Australians have taken to domestic solar systems like ageing film stars to botox. This despite state governments around the country pursuing a “slash and burn” approach to support for renewable energy, particularly solar.

The chief reasons for this has been reductions how much solar panels cost homeowners coupled with solar cell innovation, making constant improvements in the solar cell conversion almost commonplace.

Now, according to a 22 February article in the eminent The Economist (no less!), the University of Illinois, under John Rogers, the US’s PV gold medal favourite for solar cell innovation, is proposing to double the efficiency of solar cells to convert 50 percent of all sunlight that falls on them.

Rogers recently told the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) that the cells already motored along at a cool 42.5 percent and could in time be tweaked to the magical 50 percent conversion mark. This must be the PV version of the four minute mile (to mangle my sporting metaphors completely).

The cells, which are in fact four cells stacked on top of each other, are currently being tested in a pilot program by the US gee-whizz, go-ahead firm Semprius, who recently announced the world record in PV module efficiency, raising the bar to 35.5 percent (always room for one more sporting metaphor).

With the current average conversion rate of 15 percent sufficient to power a home, what would 50 percent do? Well for one make the movers and shakers (or is that shifters and quakers?) currently sitting on various fossil fuel boards throughout the country sit up and take notice. Perhaps they’d take time out from their plotting to dismantle the Renewable Energy Target to note how solar cell innovation like that of the University of Illinois is driving the huge takeup of renewable energy in Australia.

Perhaps a bit harsh there readers, there are some forward-thinking energy companies who embrace and promote renewable energy. Perhaps the subject of a future article?

Where will solar cell innovation end? What if the 50 percent conversion rate is smashed? Where to then? From an Aussie perspective, how do our world-famous photovoltaic researchers see the challenge? Watch this space folks. By the way, we’ve opened a Pinterest account for all Pinterest fans to share the best solar images for our readers. Please join, like us and re-pin to your heart’s content.


  1. It still doesn’t tell us how when the sun goes down how efficient they will be because the batteries and storage of today are so bad. Unless there are major developments in storage 50% wont mean a damn thing as its just a number without meaning.

    • Finn Peacock says

      Full of the joys of life as usual kimalice!

    • Ted Green says

      Well, here we are 16 months after your post, kimalice, and I have one word for you: Powerwall. Ain’t technological R&D and innovation grand? Wake up and smell the wattage, mate 🙂 Excise your inner Abbott and join the movement: you’ll save money and the planet, and your grandchildren will be grateful!

  2. 50% would mean a huge reduction in the infrastructure of any solar installation _ reducing cost significantly. Though it depends on lifetime cost of the module of course!

  3. Stephen Austin says

    If every house had cells with a 50% efficiency, the grid supply cables and transformers would not be capable of conducting the current away from housing areas! AND what do electricity suppliers do with the extra supply. It is not possible to shut down a steam generator for just a few hours, they must be kept ticking over. High efficiency solar panels must be progressively introduced simultaneously with other methods of power generation (like what??) as coal fired stations are progressively decommissioned. It is not as good as it sounds.

    • D. Beadsmoore says

      I agree totally, although I worked in coal fired power stations for 20yrs I am a fan of renewable energy. But the problem is as you say, if you have a 500Mgw load and drive it with solar what do you do at night or when the sun doesn’t shine. You need hours to bring a 500Mgw generator onto full load and is too costly to run it at half load or less.

      • Stephen Austin says

        Thats right, it’s a bit complicated, and if there is no requirement for power from power stations during the day, I reckon they I adjust excitation for alternators up, output voltage is slightly raised, so no power is delivered from station. I think the same for solar cells, power output would be nil if system voltage is slightly above cell systems. No-one records output power, so no credit. Very noisy protests!!!!!!!

  4. Ner of BVT says

    Inventions and technology have gone so fast in the last 100 years and much more faster in the last 20 years when the digital era comes over. We have been mesmerized by the speed of it and wonder what will happen next. Though solar technology has been with us for sometime now, it is a relatively new technology when it comes to commercial application. It will continue to improve surely, for the sake of all of us sharing this one and only planet. All of us must have one and only aim – a livable planet for us and the generations to come.

    • With companies like Dyesol, digitising their technology and the fact that it operates in low light levels is very exciting for the planet.
      If a high voltage transmission line was built across the Nullabor, Australia could take advantage of the time difference between the East and West coasts, then beefing up the metropolitan electicity infrastructure to cope with the increased green power would be awesome. We need governments with the will do something about the renewable energy revolution, but not by offering artificial incentives to home and business owners.

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