A team of engineers from the University Johns hopkins develops economical and scalable microconcentrators that absorb more light and increase the output power of solar cells up to 20 times.

Today’s silicon solar cells are heavy and bulky, and they take up a lot of space to generate power. The more modern designs, made of soft, flexible and versatile materials, organic type, are cheaper to produce but also much less efficient than traditional ones.

Image: MICHAEL KIRKHAM

Susanna Thon, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Johns Hopkins University, works in development economical and efficient solar cells.

If you want to set up solar farms in cities, where we really need energy, you would like to be able to use these high efficiency technologies, as that would reduce the area you need to generate a reasonable amount of energy. But they are too expensive. And you can’t use the cheapest materials because they don’t perform very well on a large scale.

Susanna Thon.

A few years ago, Thon had the idea to develop scalable and economical solar concentrators specifically for these new models of solar cells.

Traditional solar concentrators use large lenses and mirrors to collect large amounts of light and focus it on a smaller area. Thon and his team proceeded from this concept, replacing the heavy mirrors with a lightweight plastic containing silicon and reducing the hubs to a graceful one-inch square.

We miniaturize the entire design“Using a microconcentrator, says Thon, solar cells can absorb more light and increase the output power up to 20 times, or more, depending on the specific application.

The team 3D printed molds for micro-hub lens assemblies (grids of these tiny hubs), then fabricated lenses from a flexible silicon polymer. The result is a thin, transparent sheet of bumps that resemble the shape of an inverted egg carton that can be glued to solar cells.

These compact hubs could be cheap and easily scalable to cover a larger area, says Thon, making them promising for commercial use.

Thon and his team have filed a patent for their original design and are now working to improve the technology to better collect direct and indirect sunlight.

There is a lot of sunlight scattering through clouds or buildings, or you may want to install a solar cell on the side of a building, where it will not be directed directly into the sun at any time.

Susanna Thon.

More information: hub.jhu.edu