The next best thing for solar cells: carbon nanotubes

Solar cellsCarbon in its wide range of shapes and variations seems to be the new material to work with no matter what sector you’re in. Especially the possibilities of carbon in its numerous nano forms seem limitless.

While yesterday it was copper nanowires that were set to change the solar cell industry by making solar energy more affordable and easier to implement. Today carbon nanotubes seem to do an even better job at it.

Researchers from Northwestern University discovered that the best carbon nanotube for the job (because there are many different forms) is the single-walled metallic variant. They presented their work in Advanced Energy Materials.

Carbon nanotubes are better

Just like the copper nanowires, the transparent conductor made of carbon nanotubes offers a substitute to the often indium-based materials currently used in solar cells. But since indium is as brittle and rare as it is, both substitutes are not just replacements but actual improvements.

But if we dive deeper into the properties of both materials, there is no doubt about the carbon nanotubes coming out on top. The availability of carbon is simply so much higher than that of copper and that much cheaper because of it, in addition the efficiency of both materials in solar cells is comparable.

On top of that, increasing the amount of copper in solar cells might just make them a new target for the infamous copper thieves that are roaming parts of Western Europe. And a stolen solar cell just isn’t that effective at producing a current.

Completely carbon-based solar cells

The researchers are now working on ways to replace all the other parts of solar cells with carbon-based materials as well. If they succeed it will most probably pave the way for solar cells into our everyday lives, from integrating them into fabrics for wearable electronics to charging our car batteries.

Now it’s just a case of finding a proper biobased source of carbon to produce the nanotubes from, because putting petroleum-based carbon nanotubes to work in a renewable energy source seems a bit paradoxical.

© Jorn van Dooren |

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