The best present-day single-bandgap solar cells have efficiencies around 20–25%. However, the Carnot efficiency of the earth-sun system is 95%, so there is considerable potential for improvement. The fundamental efficiency limitation in a conventional solar cell results from the tradeoff between a low bandgap which maximizes light absorption and hence output current and a high bandgap which maximizes output voltage. As a result, the maximum theoretical efficiency of a conventional solar cell is around 30% in unconcentrated sunlight at a bandgap close to that of GaAs.
The quantum-well solar cell is a novel approach to higher efficiency. In its simplest form, shown in Figure 1, it consists of a multiquantum-well (MQW) system in the undoped region of a p-i-n solar cell. For light with energy greater than the band-gap Eg, the quantum-well cell behaves like a conventional cell. However, light with energy below Eg can be absorbed in the quantum wells. Our studies show that if the material quality is good, the electrons and holes escape from the wells and contribute to a higher output current at a voltage between that of the barrier and well material. In AlGaAs/GaAs test devices, we have obtained efficiency enhancements of a factor of more than two when cells with quantum wells are compared with identical cells without wells.
The structure in Figure 1 is, of course, essentially similar to the MQW photodiode or modulator structure that operates in reverse bias, and the quantum-well laser that operates in forward bias beyond flat band.