Photovoltaic arrays of the rainbow type, equipped with light-concentrator and spectral-beam-splitter optics, have been investigated in a continuing effort to develop lightweight, high-efficiency solar electric power sources. This investigation has contributed to a revival of the concept of the rainbow photovoltaic array, which originated in the 1950s but proved unrealistic at that time because the selection of solar photovoltaic cells was too limited. Advances in the art of photovoltaic cells since that time have rendered the concept more realistic, thereby prompting the present development effort.

A rainbow photovoltaic array comprises side-by-side strings of series-connected photovoltaic cells. The cells in each string have the same bandgap, which differs from the bandgaps of the other strings. Hence, each string operates most efficiently in a unique wavelength band determined by its bandgap. To obtain maximum energy-conversion efficiency and to minimize the size and weight of the array for a given sunlight-input aperture, the sunlight incident on the aperture is concentrated, then spectrally dispersed onto the photovoltaic-array plane, whereon each string of cells is positioned to intercept the light in its wavelength band of most efficient operation. The number of cells in each string is chosen so that the output potentials of all the strings are the same; this makes it possible to connect the strings together in parallel to maximize the output current of the array.

A Curved Fresnel Prism would concentrate and spectrally disperse sunlight onto adjacent strings of solar photovoltaic cells, each string optimized for the part of the spectrum incident upon it.

According to the original rainbow photovoltaic concept, the concentrated sunlight was to be split into multiple beams by use of an array of dichroic filters designed so that each beam would contain light in one of the desired wavelength bands. The concept has since been modified to provide for dispersion of the spectrum by use of adjacent prisms. A proposal for an advanced version calls for a unitary concentrator/spectral-beam-splitter optic in the form of a parabolic curved Fresnel-like prism array with panels of photovoltaic cells on two sides (see figure). The surface supporting the solar cells can be adjusted in length or angle to accommodate the incident spectral pattern.

An unoptimized prototype assembly containing ten adjacent prisms and three photovoltaic cells with different bandgaps (InGaP2, GaAs, and InGaAs) was constructed to demonstrate feasibility. The actual array will consist of a lightweight thin-film silicon layer of prisms curved into a parabolic shape. In an initial test under illumination of 1 sun at zero airmass, the energy-conversion efficiency of the assembly was found to be 20 percent. Further analysis of the data from this test led to a projected energy-conversion efficiency as high as 41 percent for an array of 6 cells or strings (GaP, AlGaAs, InGaP2, GaAs, and two different InGaAs cells or strings).

This work was done by Nick Mardesich and Virgil Shields of Caltech for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.