From 14 to 20 thick (a human hair is approximately 70 micrometers thick), they are 10 times thinner than conventional 6-inch-by-6-inch brick-sized cells, yet perform at about the same efficiency.
"So they use 100 times less silicon to generate the same amount of electricity," said Okandan. "Since they are much smaller and have fewer mechanical deformations for a given environment than the conventional cells, they may also be more reliable over the long term."
Another manufacturing convenience is that the cells, because they are only hundreds of micrometers in diameter, can be fabricated from commercial wafers of any size, including today's 300-millimeter (12-inch) diameter wafers and future 450-millimeter (18-inch) wafers.
Other unique features are available because the cells are so small. "The shade tolerance of our units to overhead obstructions is better than conventional PV panels," said Nielson, "because portions of our units not in shade will keep sending out electricity where a partially shaded conventional panel may turn off entirely."
Because flexible substrates can be easily fabricated, high-efficiency PV for ubiquitous solar power becomes more feasible, said Okandan.
Each cell is formed on silicon wafers, etched and then released inexpensively in hexagonal shapes, with electrical contacts prefabricated on each piece, by borrowing techniques from integrated circuits and MEMS.
Offering a run for their money to conventional large wafers of crystalline silicon, electricity presently can be harvested from the Sandia-created cells with 14.9 percent efficiency. Off-the-shelf commercial modules range from 13 to 20 percent efficient.
A widely used commercial tool called a pick-and-place machine - the current standard for the assembly of electronics - can place up to 130,000 pieces of glitter per hour at electrical contact points preestablished on the substrate; the placement takes place at cooler temperatures. The cost is approximately one-tenth of a cent per piece with the number of cells per module determined by the level of optical concentration and the size of the die, likely to be in the 10,000 to 50,000 cell per square meter range. An alternate technology, still at the lab-bench stage, involves self-assembly of the parts at even lower costs.
Solar concentrators - low-cost, prefabricated, optically efficient microlens arrays - can be placed directly over each glitter-sized cell to increase the number of photons arriving to be converted via the photovoltaic effect into electrons. The small cell size means that cheaper and more efficient short focal length microlens arrays can be fabricated for this purpose.
High-voltage output is possible directly from the modules because of the large number of cells in the array. This should reduce costs associated with wiring, due to reduced resistive losses at higher voltages.