There are many new technologies being developed to create cheaper, more efficient solar panels – however researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory just announced that they have found a way to create more efficient photovoltaic cells using 50% less energy. The technique hinges upon a new optical furnace that uses intense light instead of a conventional furnace to heat silicon to make solar cells. The new furnace utilizes “highly reflective and heat-resistant ceramics to ensure that the light is absorbed only by a silicon wafer, not by the walls inside the furnace.”

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While solar energy is one of the cleanest alternative energy methods available, the manufacturing process is fairly energy-intensive. NREL’s new method not only reduces the energy required to make solar cells, but also makes the cells more efficient as the optical furnace heats up the panels’ silicon substrate.

The scientists and engineers at NREL heated the silicon to over 1,000 degrees celsius with powerful lights that use half the energy of a conventional furnace – and the lights also remove impurities from silicon. The result is more efficient solar panels that are cheaper to produce.

The team’s work is currently at an early stage, and researchers have only improved the efficiency of the first solar cells by half a percentage point. However, based on lab tests, they believe that this can be furthered increased by four percentage points – from about 16 percent efficient to 20 percent. In an industry where half a percent increase is an achievement, this is quite a big deal.

Bringing down the cost of solar panel production is the key to getting the general public to embrace the technology. Hopefully the team’s research will yield promising results and this optical furnace process can be rolled out commercially as fast as possible so that we can all benefit from cheaper and greener energy