Solar makers turn a laser-like focus on boosting the efficiency of solar cells

In 2013, solar makers are preoccupied with boosting the efficiency of solar cells, or basically using various techniques to increase the amount of sunlight that each solar cell can convert into electricity. That’s because it’s one of the most important ways they have right now to reduce costs in a difficult year for solar manufacturers. The supply of solar cells in the market over the past year is far more than demand and some companies are selling solar cells at a loss.

It’s a particularly important trend for solar maker startups that need a premium product to sell. For example, on Monday morning, venture-backed solar startup Alta Devices announced that it’s reached 30.8 percent efficiency for solar cells that it’s marketing to mobile gadget makers. For comparison’s sake traditional silicon solar cells are closer to 20 percent efficient.

Alta Devices military 2Alta Devices says it has been working with mobile device maker customers that want to extend the battery life of gadgets using embedded Alta solar cells. The six-year-old company — which has raised $120 million from investors like Kleiner Perkins, NEA and Dow Chemical — has been planning on making a fast-charging solar iPad cover by the end of the year that could end the need to plug an iPad into the wall or laptop to charge.

Alta Devices says the 30.8 percent is a world record for its dual junction solar cell made from the materials gallium-arsenide, and previously the company was saying its cells were 28 percent efficient. Check out this article for more details on Alta Device’s solar cell technology and a tour of its pilot factory. Alta says it has been shooting for an eventual efficiency of 38 percent for its cells.

Remember this type of efficiency demonstrates what a company might be able to achieve. But whether a company will ever do so will depend on factors such as how much does it scale up its manufacturing, how much money is it able to raise and how efficiently it is operating factory equipment.

Alta’s solar cells are more expensive than traditional silicon cells, but the company is hoping that niche markets like gadget makers will be willing to pay a premium for the next-gen cells. Alta is also developing solar cells for military applications, which can enable troops and their devices to charge up off-the-grid in combat less frequently.

Startups aren’t the only ones that are focused heavily on solar cell efficiency. First Solar (s FSLR) last week announced a world record of 18.7 percent for cells made from the material cadmium-telluride. That’s up from the 17.3 percent cell it touted in July 2011.

SunPower (s SPWR) has long touted highly efficient solar cells. And suppliers like DuPont (s DD) sell materials that big solar companies can use to boost the efficiency of their cells.