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For roughly two decades, the most efficient silicon solar cells in the world used a structure invented in Australia at the University of New South Wales. This week, in a packed conference room at the IEEE Photovoltaic Specialists Conference in Denver, Panasonic gave details for the first time about a new structure that allows silicon solar cells to surpass that efficiency, setting a new world record and possibly pointing the way to cheaper solar power that can compete widely with fossil fuels.

The result reflects a new surge forward for silicon solar cells, the type that account for almost all solar cells on the market. “Amazingly, the 20-year-old efficiency record was eclipsed at this conference by three companies, Panasonic, Sharp, and SunPower,” says Richard Swanson, cofounder and former president of SunPower (see “Three Questions with a Solar Pioneer”).

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