Navy Researching Photovoltaic Cells That Work Underwater

Jun 8, 2012 by

David Quilty | 07 June, search 2012


First it was solar panels that look like typical roof tiles, then nanocrystal solar paint you can cover any hard surfaces with, and now photovoltaic solar cells that work underwater. What will scientists come up with next?

Working in the Electronics Science and Technology Division at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, scientists have developed photovoltaic cells capable of generating electricity at underwater depths up to 30 feet. They discovered that high bandgap gallium indium phosphide (GaInP) solar cells are much better than previously tested crystalline silicon cells at absorbing the lower solar radiation found underwater. By matching the wavelength of the GaInP cells, which are well-suited to lowlight conditions, to the spectral content of the sun’s rays as it pierces the surface of the water, scientists have been able to generate output of 7 watts of energy per 10 square feet of solar cell surface.

Researchers have been working for years to develop solar cells which work efficiently underwater in order to power sensors and systems out in the ocean far from shore. “Although water absorbs sunlight, the technical challenge is to develop a solar cell that can efficiently convert these underwater photons to electricity,” said Phillip Jenkins, head of the Naval Research Laboratory’s Imagers and Detectors Section, citing the need for the technology due to an increase in the use of autonomous underwater monitoring systems in the open ocean.

While these photovoltaic cells are being engineered to power sensors, the new technology could eventually be useful for solar-powered means of aquatic transportation as well. Electric ferries, tankers, and cruise ships without their power sources could one day “charge-up” at a charging station in the middle of the ocean, and solar-powered vessels such as this solar-powered catamaran could use the stations should the sun fail to come out for a few days. The possibilities are endless.

Image Credit: Anderson Mancini/Flickr



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