As if to prove the sheer speed at which solar cell technology is evolving, a new startup called Insolight claims to have beaten the efficiency record set just over a week ago by a joint team from MIT and Masdar Institute. The new device was invented by a team while working in the innovation incubator at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL), and it reportedly has a solar energy conversion rate of 36.4 percent, one percent more than the Masdar/MIT innovation. That efficiency rating is effectively double what is currently available to residential customers, which is precisely the market EPFL’s new startup is trying to help.
EPFL’s Innovation Park helps technology startups with facilities and funding to help translate big ideas into a big impact on the world. The race to innovate more efficient solar cell technology is a mad dash, and there really is no finish line. With each new development building on the discoveries that came before, each new device holds a ton of promise for its potential effect on end users and, essentially, people’s pocketbooks. Insolight’s new technology is currently being tested in a lab environment, vastly different from practical applications, but the staggering energy conversion rate is a good first step.
Insolight’s invention is already being put through the wringer. A prototype was tested by the Fraunhofer Institute, an independent lab based in Germany, in which the 36.4 percent energy conversion rate was recorded. The device tracks the sun, optimizing its capture of solar energy, and since the team chose to build on existing technology, they were able to keep costs under control. Their aim is to produce a highly efficient, but still affordable option for solar energy, thereby competing with existing residential solar arrays. Insolight’s solar panels were also designed to be easily installed on standard mounting systems, which means homeowners would be able to choose just about any mounting system they desire, as opposed to being forced to buy a manufacturer’s proprietary design.
Using a solar concentrator in the setup was the best way to boost efficiency without boosting the price. Thin, transparent plastic concentrators act as a lens to focus solar energy onto relatively tiny but super high performance solar cells, the likes of which are currently used in space applications. In doing so, the team was able to employ the best of both worlds: the high efficiency of expensive solar cells, but with just a small amount of them, due to the concentrators. “It’s like a shower: all the water goes down one small drain, there’s no need for the drain to cover the entire floor of the shower,” said Insolight CEO Laurent Coulot.