A team of US engineers have managed to create high performance, micro-scale solar cells that could power a wide range of personal devices.

Lateral solar cells are a form of solar cells which are able to convert more incoming light into energy than the tradition solar panel, which you may see on the top of someone’s house. These tiny solar cells could potentially be used to power personal devices such as smartwatches, autofocusing contact lenses and even wearable medical sensors.

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The author of the study, Professor Hongrui Jiang, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, had this to say: “From a fabrication point of view, it is always going to be easier to make side-by-side structures. Top-down structures need to be made in multiple steps and then aligned, which is very challenging at small scales.”

The tradition top down arrangement means photovoltaic cells are made of two electrodes surround a semiconducting material. When the light sources hit the first electrode, charge travels through to the bottom layer, creating an electric current. Jiang’s group instead created a densely packed side to side version, in effect rotating the solar cells 90°. This allows the light harvesting and charge conducting featuring of the solar cell to be solely responsible for the separate components – this isn’t the case in the top down solar cells.

Existing lateral new-generation solar cells convert around 2 percent of incoming light into electricity. Professor Jiang’s cells were able to convert almost three times as much, which could be due to so many electrodes being present in a tiny volume.

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Professor Jiang continued: “In other structures, a lot of volume goes wasted because there are no electrodes or the electrodes are mismatched. The technology we developed allows us to make very compact lateral structures that take advantage of the full volume.”

The team from the US will now look to work on making their solar cells even smaller and efficient by finding that can increase transparency and conductivity.

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