They suggest that by using precisely structured materials to sort sunlight into several different wavelengths, it should be possible to direct each to a semiconductor that has been tuned to be the most efficient for that wavelength. The end result should be the absorption of more energy overall, allowing for the generation of more electricity (and less heat) from the same amount of sunlight.
Their idea isn’t completely new of course, many research centers have created solar cells using very similar ideas. What’s new is the idea that advances in nanomaterials should allow for such cells to be mass produced in a way makes them cost effective – and that is what the team plans to use the grant money to discover.
Given how hard I’ve been on solar and wind subsidies, you might think I think this is a bad idea. It’s actually exactly the sort of research we should be funding, basic technical proof-of-concept stuff that pushed the leading edge, but doesn’t subsidize final products. Large-scale solar still has all the disadvantages of large footprints and a physical limitations of the amount of light hitting the planet. But people are starting to get clever about embedding panels into building material, spreading it around cities, and so forth. So there may still be ways of making it cost-competitive in urban areas.