A new one-step process is able to produce highly efficient materials that let the maximum amount of sunlight reach a solar cell.

By creating one simple way to etch nanoscale spikes into silicon, it is possible to allow more than 99 percent of sunlight to reach the cells’ active elements, where it can turn into electricity, said Andrew Barron of Rice University, the Charles W. Duncan Jr.–Welch Professor of Chemistry and a professor of materials science and nanoengineering.

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The more light absorbed by a solar panel’s active elements, the more power it will produce. But the light has to get there. Coatings in current use that protect the active elements let most light pass but reflect some as well. Various strategies have cut reflectance down to about 6 percent, Barron said, but the anti-reflection ends up limited to a specific range of light, incident angle and wavelength.

Enter black silicon, so named because it reflects almost no light. Black silicon is simply silicon with a highly textured surface of nanoscale spikes or pores smaller than the wavelength of light. The texture allows the efficient collection of light from any angle — from sunrise to sunset.

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Barron and Yen-Tien Lu, grad assistant and the lead author of a paper on the subject, replaced a two-step process that involved metal deposition and electroless chemical etching with a single step that works at room temperature.

The chemical stew that makes it possible is a mix of copper nitrate, phosphorous acid, hydrogen fluoride and water. When applied to a silicon wafer, the phosphorous acid reduces the copper ions to copper nanoparticles. The nanoparticles attract electrons from the silicon wafer’s surface, oxidizing it and allowing hydrogen fluoride to burn inverted pyramid-shaped nanopores into the silicon.

Fine-tuning the process resulted in a black silicon layer with pores as small as 590 nanometers (billionths of a meter) that let through more than 99 percent of light. (By comparison, a clean, un-etched silicon wafer reflects nearly 100 percent of light.)

Barron said the spikes would still require a coating to protect them from the elements, and his lab is working on ways to shorten the eight-hour process needed to perform the etching in the lab. But the ease of creating black silicon in one step makes it far more practical than previous methods, he said.

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