MIT’s Solar Funnel Concentrates Solar Energy 100 Times

by , 09/13/10

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A group of chemical engineers at MIT have devised a way to collect solar energy 100 times more concentrated than a traditional photovoltaic cell. If their ‘solar funnel’ venture proves to be a success, it could drastically alter how solar energy is collected in the future — there will no longer be a need for massive solar arrays or extensive space to generate significant and sufficient amounts of power. The engineers’ research has determined that carbon nanotubes — hollow tubes made up of carbon atoms — will be the primary instrument in capturing and focusing light energy, allowing for not just smaller, but more powerful solar arrays.

In the Sept. 12 online edition of the journal Nature Materials, Michael Strano, the Charles and Hilda Roddey Associate Professor of Chemical Engineering and leader of the research team said, “Instead of having your whole roof be a photovoltaic cell, you could have little spots that were tiny photovoltaic cells, with antennas that would drive photons into them.” Their work is being funded by a National Science Foundation Career Award, a Sloan Fellowship, the MIT-Dupont Alliance and the Korea Research Foundation.

The antenna itself is incredibly small – it consists of a fibrous rope about 10 micrometers (millionths of a meter) long and four micrometers thick, containing about 30 million carbon nanotubes. The prototype made by Strano’s team consisted of a fiber made of two layers of nanotubes, each with different electrical properties.

When a photon strikes the surface of the solar funnel, it excites an electron to a higher energy level, which is specific to the material. The relationship between the energized electron and the hole it leaves behind is called an exciton, and the difference in energy levels between the hole and the electron is known as the bandgap.

The inner layer of the antenna contains nanotubes with a small bandgap, and nanotubes in the outer layer have a higher bandgap. Excitons like to flow from high to low energy, and in the solar funnel’s case means they can flow from the outer layer to the inner layer where they can exist in a lower energy state. When light strikes the antenna, all of the excitons flow to the center of the antenna where they are concentrated and the photons are converted to an electrical current. Like with all solar cells however, its efficiency depends on the materials utilized for the electrode.

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  1. StevenNia January 2, 2012 at 3:26 am

    I fully agree with the eboireau’s comments. SolarDon takes a narrow view of what solar concentration may be, and how it may be achieved. Indeed efficient collection techniques, such as the one described here is exactly what the doctor has ordered for the incredibility high potential and amazingly under explored solar industry.

    I agree with SolarDon, however, regarding the high production costs of carbon nanotubes, at this stage. Just like any other advanced technology, once volume production starts, the costs miraculously go down, faster than anyone can imagine.

    Overall, I give this innovation team very high marks, for thinking out of the box, which is precisely what we need to bring solar energy into reality.

    NIA Energy – Steven Nia

  2. eboireau February 22, 2011 at 5:47 pm

    @SolarDon: the article do not said like you that light is concentrated, but that it “collect solar energy” ! The scientist leader was less exact saying “antennas…drive photons into them” !!

    In fact, it collect and concentrate energy converted from light into excitons. I find this remarkable, but I’m curious about the conversion yield and concentration level that can be achieved. Yet the price of nanotubes and manufacturing such solar device surely will be redihibitive for electric production. Nonetheless, this may be interesting for specific applications! nanotubes can be combined at microscale to surfaces or LEDS, where other solutions are not possible!

  3. SolarDon September 15, 2010 at 4:43 pm

    It may be nice to actually know a little bit about what you are reporting on!! Solar cells do not concentrate light. Typically there are optics the direct concentrated light to the solar cell like Sol Focus ( or Amonix ( or in the case of a Rainbow Concentrator will separate and concentrate the light like Sol Solution (

    Using carbon nanotubes in solar energy is so ridiculously expensive that it is laughable.

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