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Quantum dots: A big boost to solar tech?

Susan Montoya Bryan / AP file

Solar panels at a 2-megawatt photovoltaic array in Albuquerque, N.M. are shown. Charged quantum dots could increase the efficiency of solar cells by 45 percent, according to researchers.

Itsy bitsy particles with a built-in charge could provide a big boost to the efficiency of solar cells, according to researchers aiming to take their innovation to market.

The particles, called charged quantum dots, are embedded into conventional solar cells, and increase their efficiency by up to 45 percent, the team from the University at Buffalo reports.

The boost comes because the dots permit harvesting of infrared light, which is otherwise lost, and the charge on the dots prevent them from absorbing free-flowing electrons in the cell.

"These two special effects we can use to increase solar cell efficiency," Andrei Sergeev, an electrical engineer at the university, told me Monday. 

He and colleagues published their findings in May 2011 in Nano Letters and recently created a company, OPtoElctronic Nanodevices, to commercialize the technology.

The company aims to develop solar cells with the tiny particles and then license them to manufacturers.

"These cells will be at least 50 percent and up to 100 percent more efficient than current solar cells," according to a presentation given at an energy conference in October.

Such improved cells could be a boost to the U.S. military, which is on the lookout for light and powerful energy technologies for use on the battlefield. 

In fact, researchers with the U.S. Air Force and Army collaborated on the project.

Key to the team's success is doping their quantum dot, which is made of semiconductor materials, so that it has a charge. 

"This built-in charge is beneficial because it repels electrons, forcing them to travel around the quantum dots," the University of Buffalo explains in a news release.

"Otherwise, the quantum dots create a channel of recombination for electrons, in essence 'capturing' moving electrons and preventing them from contributing to electric current."

The team calls their quantum dot with a built-in charge Q-BICs. 

Working in the lab, the team has demonstrated a "substantial increase in photovoltaic efficiency," Sergeev said. They now hope to scale it up and make it a viable technology. 

"This is only the beginning," he added.

In other words, whether this solar breakthrough will be the one that succeeds in the marketplace remains unknown. To check out more ideas in the solar technology landscape, see the stories below.

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John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. To learn more about him, check out his website. For more of our Future of Technology series, watch the featured video below.



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