Jul 20, 2017 | By Julia

Researchers at the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) are taking a 3D printing-inspired approach in making solar cells more cost efficient, according to a new study published in the scientific journal Advanced Energy Materials. Along the way, they’ve found a wealth of untapped application potential, says lead author Dr. Santanu Bag.

“Sun is abundant, and it’s free,” says Bag, a project scientist at the AFRL’s Manufacturing Directorate. "Solar cells can generate electricity in an environmentally friendly way, but current, complex fabrication costs make the technology expensive. We're looking at new ways to use materials and manufacturing technologies to make these less expensively."

In the burgeoning industry of solar energy, efficiency is a key factor to success, but it hasn’t been an easy path getting there. Since research into solar cells first began in the 1950s, the technology has remained complex and labor intensive. Pure silicon must be extracted from an original material (quartz and sand are two of the most commonly used), and then transformed into thin wafers. These silicon wafers are then treated with chemicals to form a polarized electric field. Now semiconductors, the cells are encapsulated in a specialized support system in order to make up a photovoltaic module; only then can the modules (or solar cells) collect and convert sunlight into an electric current.  

It’s a mouthful to say the least, and that’s nothing compared to the man-hours required. Moreover, the prohibitive costs associated with this manufacturing process have remained a serious hurdle in the widespread adoption of solar power, despite the inherent cost efficiency of using solar energy.

Traditionally manufactured solar panels

Aware of the issue, Bag’s team have been hard at work on innovating a solution. "If you want to make solar competitive, you need to make solar cells more efficient and cost effective," he says. "Silicon cells use purely inorganic materials, which by nature are very hard. We needed a material that was easy to print and at the same time able to capture sunlight.”

The question of finding an appropriate material quickly came to the fore - a material that could provide a viable alternative to inorganic, hard silicon, but that could still transform solar energy. While an unlikely source of inspiration, the AFRL team turned to the concept of newsprint, in which rolls of paper are printed with ink, as a working model. If they could print an inorganic-organic hybrid material, Bag reckoned, solar harvest energy could still be harvested, but without the prohibitive price tag.

Thin-film perovskites proved to have an excellent light absorbing capability and strong power conversion efficiencies. Yet only recently was the material investigated for its solar power ability, with Bag among the leading researchers in the field. It’s been around since the 1990s, explains the lead AFRL researcher, but the focus had always been the production of light-emitting diodes, not harnessing solar energy.

Now, issues of climate change and energy shortages have put the innovative material back on the map. Bag’s study focused specifically on atomizing the perovskite precursor material through ultrasonic waves, which enables fine aerosol droplets that can be transferred into an aerosol-jet spray printer nozzle. With the help of CAD tool paths, the material could then coat an appropriate surface, creating a solar cell that boats 15.4 percent efficiency.

Even better, Bag and his team have shown that these solar cells can be printed on a 3D surface while maintaining a 5.4 percent efficiency. Could 3D printing the material itself be on the way? "We have not optimized conditions for 3D printing of these yet, but we know it can be done,” says Bag. “Once you know how to print it, it has huge potential for other applications.”

The applications are potentially endless. Using this material and printing process, the AFRL’s method could be used to print flexible solar cells on clothing. Self-powered robotics, light-emitting devices, and even flexible self-powered sensors suddenly become achievable applications in a not-too-distant reality, rather than the stuff of science fiction.

Bag and his team, which includes fellow researchers Dr. Michael Durstock, Soft Matter Materials Branch Chief at the AFRL Materials and Manufacturing Directorate, and James Deneault, a research engineer at Universal Technology Corporation, have filed a patent application for the technology, and are currently awaiting the results.

To be sure, the research is still in its early stages, but the potential impact of the new manufacturing process cannot be understated. The cost savings could be huge, Bag notes.

 

 

Posted in 3D Printing Application

 

 

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