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Photovoltaic cells that can tap underwater solar energy

08 June 2012

Scientists at the US Naval Research Laboratory have developed solar cells capable of producing sufficient power to operate electronic sensor systems at depths of 9m. Gallium indium phosphide (GaInP) cells have high quantum efficiency in wavelengths between 400 and 700nm and intrinsically low dark current, which is critical for high efficiency in low light conditions.

Power density of GaInP and crystalline silicon cells, underwater, as a function of depth (Graph courtesy of US Naval Research Laboratory)
Power density of GaInP and crystalline silicon cells, underwater, as a function of depth (Graph courtesy of US Naval Research Laboratory)

Underwater autonomous systems and sensor platforms are severely limited by the lack of long endurance power sources. To date, these systems must rely on on-shore power, batteries or solar power supplied by an above-water platform. Attempts to use photovoltaics have had limited success, primarily due to the lack of penetrating sunlight and the use of solar cells optimised more towards the unimpeded terrestrial solar spectrum.

"The use of autonomous systems to provide situational awareness and long-term environment monitoring underwater is increasing," said Phillip Jenkins, head, Naval Research Laboratory Imagers and Detectors Section. "Although water absorbs sunlight, the technical challenge is to develop a solar cell that can efficiently convert these underwater photons to electricity."

Even though the absolute intensity of solar radiation is lower underwater, the spectral content is narrow and thus lends itself to high conversion efficiency if the solar cell is well matched to the wavelength range. Previous attempts to operate solar cells underwater have focused on crystalline silicon solar cells and more recently, amorphous silicon cells.
The filtered spectrum of the sun underwater is biased toward the blue/green portion of the spectrum and thus higher bandgap cells such as GaInP perform much better than conventional silicon cells, states Jenkins.

Preliminary results at a maximum depth of 9.1m reveal output to be 7W per square metre of solar cells, sufficient to demonstrate there is useful solar power to be harvested at depths commonly found in nearshore littoral zones.

For more information about the work of the US Naval Research Laboratory, click here.

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