A Clearer Outlook for Quantum Dot-Enabled Solar Windows

A young woman looks out of a large office window towards a group of neoclassical buildings. The scene is tinted yellow by light from a sun low above the horizon.
Photo: Ezra Bailey/Getty Images

Quantum dots have been knocking on the door of photovoltaics for a while now. But it turns out that maybe they should have been tapping on the window instead.

In joint research between the Department of Energy’s Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) and the University of Milan-Bicocca (UNIMIB) in Italy, researchers have spent the last 16 months perfecting a technique that makes it possible to embed quantum dots into windows so that the window itself becomes a solar panel.

In research published in the journal Nature Nanotechnology, the international team were able to improve upon their previous iteration of the technology by making the quantum dots from non-toxic materials while having the window be largely tint free and transparent.

“In these devices, a fraction of light transmitted through the window is absorbed by nanosized particles (semiconductor quantum dots) dispersed in a glass window, re-emitted at [an] infrared wavelength invisible to the human eye, and wave-guided to a solar cell at the edge of the window,” said Victor Klimov, lead researcher on the project at LANL, in a press release. 

Of course, this is not the first time someone thought that it would be a good idea to make windows into solar collectors. But this latest iteration marks a significant development in the evolution of the technology. Previous technologies used organic emitters that limited the size of the concentrators to just a few centimeters.

The energy conversion efficiency the researchers were able to acheive with the solar windows was around 3.2 percent, which stands up pretty well when compared with state-of-the-art quantum dot-based solar cells that have reached 9 percent conversion efficiency.

The US-Italy team’s first breakthrough last year was to make large-area solar concentrators that were free from reabsorption losses that had plagued previous attempts. This lastest breakthrough was in finding a way to toss out the cadmium quantum dots for a more environmentally friendly compound.

“Our new devices use quantum dots of a complex composition which includes copper (Cu), indium (In), selenium (Se) and sulfur (S),” said Klimov in the release: “these particles do not contain any toxic metals that are typically present” in similar systems, he added. And Klimov claims that because their quantum dots absorb light from throughout the spectrum of incoming sunlight, it doesn’t distort colors.  

The researchers acknowledge that we won’t see solar windows for sale in the near term, as bringing down production costs still remains an issue. But they believe this latest development should bring solar windows closer to the market, as their new quantum dots are cheaper than traditional dots.



IEEE Spectrum’s nanotechnology blog, featuring news and analysis about the development, applications, and future of science and technology at the nanoscale.

Dexter Johnson
Madrid, Spain
Rachel Courtland
Associate Editor, IEEE Spectrum
New York, NY