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Breakthrough: World's most efficient solar panel

Breakthrough: World's most efficient solar panel

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N. Carolina's Semprius and its German backer Siemens develop a prototype that converts more than a third of sunlight into electricity. Smoke and mirrors? Well, mirrors anyway.

North Carolina's Semprius Inc. and its German backer Siemens said they have developed the world's most efficient solar panel.

The prototype converts 33.9 percent of the sunlight that hits it into electricity, according to separate press releases from the two companies. That's more than double the most efficient conventional photovoltaic (PV) module on the market, where performance tops out at 16 percent, Forbes magazine found late last year.

It beats the previous laboratory best of 32 percent, Semprius said, citing testing and certification from Spain's Instituto de Energia Solar at the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid. Semprius late last year announced a breakthrough in the 41 percent efficient solar cells it builds into its modules. Cells typically are more efficient than the overall module.

In the game of energy economics, even a small improvement could make a big difference in returns on investment, especially on large utility scale projects. Efficient panels can also make better use of limited space on, say, a rooftop.

"This is a significant milestone for Semprius and the entire PV industry," said Scott Burroughs, vice president of technology at Durham, N.C.-based Semprius. "For the first time we have been able to convert more than one third of the sun's energy into usable electricity."

The Semprius solar module magnifies the sunlight before it hits a photovoltaic cell, using mirrors and lenses. The design is a form of concentrated photovoltaics (CPV), which borrows from conventional PV that produce direct electricity, and from solar thermal, the technology in which mirrors reflect sunlight onto a fluid that heats up and drives a steam turbine.

Siemens owns 16 percent of Semprius, after buying into the company last June with the express aim of scaling up concentrated CPV "to market maturity," the Siemens release notes. It is contributing expertise in components such as trackers that position the panels in optimal position. Semprius focuses on developing the module and cells.

CPV holds great potential but is in a much earlier market stage than PV or solar thermal, also known as concentrated solar power (CSP). "It has potential to become a game changer for the solar markets in regions with high irradiation," said Martin Pfund, CEO of Siemens Energy's photovoltaic business unit.

Semprius developed its technology with support from the U.S. Department of Energy's Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Image from Semprius.

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Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure