In this course, you will learn about the fundamentals of photoelectric conversion: charge excitation, conduction, separation, and collection. You will become familiar with commercial and emerging photovoltaic (PV) technologies and various cross-cutting themes in PV: conversion efficiencies, loss mechanisms, characterization, manufacturing, systems, reliability, life-cycle analysis, risk analysis. Other topics covered include photovoltaic technology evolution in the context of markets, policies, society, and environment.

Class Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1.5 hours / session

Recitations: 1 session / week, 1 hour / session

Course Objectives

By the year 2030, several hundred gigawatts of power must be generated from low-carbon sources to cap atmospheric CO2 concentrations at levels deemed "lower-risk" by the current scientific consensus. The necessity to develop low-carbon energy sources represents not only an awesome technological and engineering challenge, but also an equally large economic opportunity in a trillion-dollar energy market.

Students will learn how solar cells convert light into electricity, how solar cells are manufactured, how solar cells are evaluated, what technologies are currently on the market, and how to evaluate the risk and potential of existing and emerging solar cell technologies. We examine the potential and drawbacks of currently manufactured technologies (single- and multi-crystalline silicon, micromorph tandem cells, CdTe, CIGS, CPV, PVT), as well as pre-commercial technologies (organics, biomimetic, organic/inorganic hybrid, and nanostructure-based solar cells). Hands-on laboratory sessions explore how a solar cell works in practice. We scrutinize what limits solar cell performance and cost, and the major hurdles-technological, economic, and political-towards widespread substitution of fossil fuels. Students will apply this knowledge towards developing a class project on the solar-related topic of their choosing.

Student-Professor Contract

I recognize there are many students coming from a diverse range of backgrounds and academic levels. My objective is to make the course as meaningful and interesting as possible, and as challenging as appropriate, without leaving folks behind or causing more experienced students to get bored. While teaching domain-specific knowledge, I intend to convey an approach one can employ towards any multidisciplinary field in which technology, policy, and economics are closely entwined. This professional skill is highly transferable to other industries / problems.

In turn, I expect each student to do her/his part: attend and participate in lectures, labs, and field trips; actively read materials before class; attend TA's and Professor's office hours before you start falling behind, and pick a project about which you're passionate. I expect complete adherence to MIT's code of academic conduct.

Course Learning Objectives

  1. Describe (phenomenologically) the principal phenomena governing the function (and conversion efficiency) of a PV device.
  2. List currently commercialized technologies, and list strengths, weaknesses of each, and develop a cost model.
  3. Identify limitations to TW-scale deployment, and possible enabling strategies and technologies.
  4. Apply the above to a real-world project, evaluating complex trade-offs between technology, economics, policy, and social aspects.

Course Roadmap

The course is divided into three parts: Fundamentals, Technologies, and Cross-Cutting Themes. This is represented by the following figure and reflected in the course schedule.



Grading for the course will be based on:

Activity % of Final Grade
Homework 20%
Concept Quizzes 5%
Quiz #1 15%
Quiz #2 20%
Class Project 40%


This class is primarily taught by Prof. Tonio Buonassisi and lead TA Joseph Sullivan. Co-TA is Rupak Chakraborty, and laboratory guru is David Berney Needleman.

Prof. Buonassisi's research is focused on bringing photovoltaics mainstream via technology innovations. Prior to joining the faculty at MIT, Prof. Buonassisi worked at a local solar energy start-up (Evergreen Solar, Inc.), and he continues to interact with a wide range of companies today. Buonassisi co-developed a similar semester-long course on photovoltaics at UC Berkeley, and month-long mini-courses during the MIT IAP periods of 2006 and 2007, which attracted over fifty participants across various disciplines. For more information about Buonassisi, see his website.

Joseph Sullivan is entering his fourth year in MIT's Photovoltaic Research Laboratory. He currently researches advanced photovoltaic concepts that have the potential to break the Shockley-Queisser efficiency limit. Joe is an active member of the MIT solar sub-community, and enjoys both teaching & research.

David joined the MIT Photovoltaic Research Laboratory to accelerate an industrial partnership using spatially resolved characterization techniques to improve carrier collection in silicon wafers. He received a B.S. in physics in 2007 from the University of Oregon where he studied defect characterization of CIGS thin-film solar cells. He also spent a year working in R&D for a solar thermal company in Cape Town, South Africa. Outside of the lab, you can probably find him skiing, hiking, or playing ultimate frisbee.

Rupak is a first year MechE graduate student in MIT's Photovoltaic Research Laboratory. He earned his bachelor's degree in physics from Harvard University in 2010. His previous research experience includes ultracold atomic physics, quantum chemistry of photosynthetic complexes, and photoelectrochemical characterization of thin films. Rupak also spent six months with Twin Creeks Technologies working on novel manufacturing processes for crystalline silicon photovoltaics. He is currently interested in low-cost, earth-abundant materials for thin film solar cells.

Visiting lecturers may be drawn from surrounding companies, universities, analyst, consulting, and venture capital firms, as well as all segments of the PV value chain (wafer, cell, and module manufacturing, installation, systems integration).


C. Honsberg, and S. Bowden. Photovoltaics: Devices, Systems and Applications (PVCDROM). [A free online resource.]

Buy at Amazon Green, M. A. Solar Cells: Operating Principles, Technology, and System Applications. Prentice Hall, 1981. ISBN: 9780138222703.

References and Reading Material

Books about Solar Cells

Aberle, A. Crystalline Silicon Solar Cells: Advanced Surface Passivation and Analysis. University of New South Wales, 1999. ISBN: 9780733406454.

Buy at Amazon Bube, R. Photovoltaic Materials. World Scientific Publishing Company, 1998. ISBN: 9781860940651.

Buy at Amazon Green, M. Silicon Solar Cells: Advanced Principles and Practice. Centre Photovoltaic Devices & Systems, 1995. ISBN: 9780733409943.

Luque, A., and S. Hegedus, eds. Handbook of Photovoltaic Science and Engineering. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. 2003. ISBN: 9780471491965.

Buy at Amazon Nelson, J. The Physics of Solar Cells. Imperial College Press, 2003. ISBN: 9781860943409.

Buy at Amazon Poortmans, J., and V. Arkhipov. Thin Film Solar Cells: Fabrication, Characterization and Applications. 1st ed. Wiley, 2006. ISBN: 9780470091265.

Buy at Amazon Wenham, S., M. Green, et al., eds. Applied Photovoltaics. 2nd ed. Routledge, 2006. ISBN: 9781844074013.

Books about Solid-state Physics

Buy at Amazon Ashcroft, N., and D. Mermin. Solid State Physics. 1st ed. Brooks Cole, 1976. ISBN: 9780030839931.

Buy at Amazon Kittel, Charles. Introduction to Solid State Physics. 8th ed. Wiley, 2004. ISBN: 9780471415268.

Buy at Amazon Yu, P. and M. Cardona. Fundamentals of Semiconductors. 3rd ed. Springer, 2004. ISBN: 9783540413233.

Books about Semiconductor Device Characterization

Buy at Amazon Schroder, D. Semiconductor Material and Device Characterization. 2nd ed. Wiley-Interscience, 1998. ISBN: 9780471241393.

Review Articles

Kazmerski, L. "Solar Photovoltaics R&D at the Tipping Point: A 2005 Technology Overview." Journal of Electron Spectroscopy and Related Phenomena 150, no. 2–3 (2006): 105–135.