A scientific breakthrough by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has produced a new type solar cell capable of absorbing energy from the infrared spectrum, where about 40 percent of the energy in sunlight exists.

All prior solar cells ignored the infrared spectrum for energy stored in visible light, but the new cell uses purified carbon fibers converted into microscopic tube-like structures called nanotubes to capture the hidden power. Details of the new cell were published in the latest edition of the scientific journal Advanced Materials.

A bonus: Researchers said that because the cells are transparent, they could one day be laid on top of currently existing solar arrays, turning the less-efficient and more common photovoltaic cells into hybrids capable of much greater energy output.

Although the new cells' energy conversion efficiency ratio is currently very low, the team believes they can scale it up as the product becomes more refined with later iterations. If widely adopted, the new technology could give the U.S. a significant leg up on its renewable energy goals.

Carbon nanotubes have been at the forefront of renewable energy research for several years now. Researchers at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) announced in 2007 that they had developed solar cells that can be folded like paper thanks to the pliability of the microscopic structures. The breakthrough led researchers to predict that people will one day be able to create their own solar cells with inkjet printers, or simply paint a solar-absorbtion layer onto vehicles.

That very prediction became a reality just earlier this year, when researchers at the University of Southern California announced in April that they have developed a solar cell made out of nanocrystals that exist inside a liquid which can be painted or printed onto surfaces. While nanocrystal solar cells are still highly inefficient, researchers said it is only a matter of time before they unlock their true potential.


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