'Black Silicon' Breakthrough to Change Solar Power Forever?

Black Silicon photo

Breakthrough in Light Sensitivity
Harvard scientists discovered black silicon by accident: They shone hyper-powerful laser — "briefly matching the energy produced by the sun falling on the surface of the entire earth" — on a silicon wafer, and then added sulfur hexafluoride. The result was a piece of silicon that looked black to the naked eye, but that upon closer inspection showed a bunch of microscopic spikes (kind of like the "hairy" nanowire solar panels).

The excitement started when they realized that this new material was 100 to 500x more light sensitive than regular silicon detectors. This could be a major breakthrough for night-vision equipment, digital photography, and... solar power! Read on for more.

Black Silicon Scientists photo

Real-World Applications for Black Silicon
Now Harvard is announcing that it is licensing its black silicon (such a cool name!) patents to SiOnyx, a Massachusetts company that raised $11 million in venture cash so far.

The beauty of black silicon is that it's not that hard to make:

And because black silicon is just silicon that's been roughed up a bit by femtosecond laser pulses and chemical treatment, SiOnyx's technology could theoretically be integrated into existing semiconductor fabrication lines without much disruption. "You can do everything we're talking about without extraordinary, Herculean effort, and you can do it in a way that fits with high-volume manufacturing flows," says [SiOnyx principal scientist James Carey].

We're very curious to know what kind of conversion efficiency solar cells using black silicon could get. If it's really as high as this seems to promise, and if the treatment to turn ordinary silicon into this new stuff really isn't that expensive or complex, we can imagine a future where no solar cells are made with the regular stuff. It would just be a waste!

Black Silicon image

The Future of Black Silicon and SiOnyx
According to the NYT:

"SiOnyx is continuing to experiment with the photovoltaic properties of black silicon, but Mr. Saylor said the company had no plans to jump into the market to become a solar cell manufacturer. "Our engagement is going to be as a technology provider, not as a producer," he said."

Which could be good news. Production of black silicon could ramp up much faster - if it works as promised - via licensing agreements than if we have to wait for SiOnyx to get its own manufacturing plants and such.

This is something we'll keep an eye on for sure!

Via New York Times, Xconomy
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