ABU DHABI // Scientists working on a Dh6.6 million research project have almost doubled the amount of energy obtained from solar cells.
Researchers from Masdar Institute of Science and Technology made the breakthrough by constructing the cells using the chemical element germanium mixed with the usual silicon.
"Germanium has better optical properties for solar cells than silicon," said Dr Ammar Nayfeh, an assistant professor in microsystems engineering at the institute and head of the project.
"The electrons move faster in germanium so you can actually get more current with it."
The project was launched in 2011 with the aim to provide smaller, faster and less power-hungry devices by optimising the capture of solar energy.
"We showed that by incorporating germanium in our solar cells, we could exploit more of the sun's radiation," Dr Nayfeh said.
"There's some kind of distance called the band-gap and the smaller that band-gap is, the more current we can get out of it," Dr Nayfeh said.
"A lot of the sun comes through and gets wasted so this allows more efficiency."
Germanium has also proven to absorb a lot more light than other materials, which means smaller quantities can be used.
Masdar Institute has so far conducted its experimental work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston and Bilkent University in Turkey, but its own 300-square-metre clean room is almost ready for use.
"It's now ramping up," Dr Nayfeh said. "We're at the point of setting up the experiments, getting trained, students are now developing the process here.
"Just recently, we fabricated a working thin-film solar cell at Masdar for the first time. We've also added gold nano-particles on top of the solar cells that further enhances the solar current achieved."
Dr Nayfeh and his team will spend the next few months developing the clean room.
"It's going to be a lab where we can do experiments with tools comparable to Stanford and MIT," he said. "It can be used by any UAE university and it'll be a UAE-centric clean room."
Masdar's first trial using the germanium in solar applications is still in progress and is expected to be completed soon.
"New ways to improve solar cell performance are ongoing in the nano-electronics and photonics lab," Dr Nayfeh said.
The institute has also begun building a team of experts from MIT and Masdar for a new centre for photovoltaic research at Masdar.
"This region is so prime for solar because the intensity of the sun is stronger than in other places," Dr Nayfeh said said. "You don't need that much area of the desert to have enough energy to power almost the entire earth, so there's so much energy available, it's just a matter of using it."
The goal is to set up a solar plant in Abu Dhabi that could supply not only the UAE but also neighbouring countries.
"Solar energy is the most abundant energy source that we have available on Earth and most of it is wasted, as it does not get utilised towards our energy needs," said Sabina Abdul Hadi, a PhD student in microsystems engineering who is working on the project at Masdar Institute. "By using solar cells and their photovoltaic effect, we can convert abundant solar radiation into clean energy. We need solar cells to be efficient and affordable for everyone."
Dr Nayfeh described solar energy as "more of a commodity". "We can reduce the amount of costs for the average UAE resident as part of the Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030, using this technology."
The solar project is expected to complete by the end of next year.
Dr Nayfeh said he hoped a prototype of the centre for photovoltaic research would be set up then.
"We're trying to reduce energy because there's so much power that's being consumed," he said. "Abu Dhabi can really make an impact on solar if we focus on it."