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Quantum photocells might cheat efficiency limits

Getting atoms into quantum lockstep could curb photon loss

1:25pm, May 28, 2010

Atoms in a solar cell coaxed into a curious simultaneous quantum state may convert sunlight into electrical energy more efficiently than previously believed possible, a new study proposes.

The laws of thermodynamics set the upper limit of solar cell efficiency at around 80 percent, says the work’s author, Marlan Scully of Texas A&M University in College Station and Princeton University. But this estimate doesn’t take certain quantum effects into account. Scully’s new model shows that the ultimate energy efficiency can be pushed even higher, depending on the particulars of the system.

“I think it’s always important to know what the ultimate efficiency is,” says physicist Ting Shan Luk of Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, who was not involved in the study. “Without knowing the limit, you don’t know what to shoot for.”

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