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All-Carbon Cells Could Spread Solar Energy Use

Stanford University researchers say they still have a ways to go, but the ability to create a cell using one of the most abundant elements on Earth suggests real promise for the solar energy industry.

What’s the Latest Development?

Researchers at Stanford University have succeeded in creating the world’s first-ever photovoltaic made entirely from carbon. The cell, which consists of “a nanotube cathode and a graphene anode sandwiching an active layer made of nanotubes and buckyballs [spherical carbon molecules],” only converts a tiny amount of light into electrical energy, but team leader Zhenan Bao gives a couple of reasons for that, including the roughness of the carbon films, which affect the ability of the charge to travel. The nanomaterials “are still relatively new…[t]here’s a lot of research on how to control [and] use them.”

What’s the Big Idea?

Carbon’s strength combined with its abundance in nature make all-carbon cells ideal for energy needs that can’t be met by cells made from silicon and other inorganic materials. Flexible, printable versions could be used in a variety of applications from home energy to personal electronics. More fine-tuning needs to be done; other teams are working on improving the active layer, for example. Silicon solar cells currently convert about 20 percent of light into electricity; University of Kansas professor Shengiang Ren says that for carbon cells to be of value commercially, they will need a conversion value of at least 10 percent.

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