Ultrathin, Lightweight Solar Panels

A race is on in solar engineering to create almost impossibly-thin, flexible solar panels. Engineers imagine them used in mobile applications, from self-powered wearable devices and sensors to lightweight aircraft and electric vehicles. Against that backdrop, researchers at Stanford University have achieved record efficiencies in a promising group of photovoltaic materials. Chief among the benefits of these transition metal dichalcogenides – or TMDs – is that they absorb ultrahigh levels of the sunlight that strikes their surface compared to other solar materials.

Transition metal dichalcogenide solar cells on a flexible polyimide substrate

Imagine an autonomous drone that powers itself with a solar array atop its wing that is 15 times thinner than a piece of paper,” said Koosha Nassiri Nazif, a doctoral scholar in electrical engineering at Stanford and co-lead author of a study published in the Dec. 9 edition of Nature Communications. “That is the promise of TMDs.”

The search for new materials is necessary because the reigning king of solar materials, silicon, is much too heavy, bulky and rigid for applications where flexibility, lightweight and high power are preeminent, such as wearable devices and sensors or aerospace and electric vehicles.

Silicon makes up 95 percent of the solar market today, but it’s far from perfect. We need new materials that are light, bendable and, frankly, more eco-friendly,” said Krishna Saraswat, a professor of electrical engineering and senior author of the paper. While TMDs hold great promise, research experiments to date have struggled to turn more than 2 percent of the sunlight they absorb into electricity. For silicon solar panels, that number is closing in on 30 percent. To be used widely, TMDs will have to close that gap.

The new Stanford prototype achieves 5.1 percent power conversion efficiency, but the authors project they could practically reach 27 percent efficiency upon optical and electrical optimizations. That figure would be on par with the best solar panels on the market today, silicon included.

Moreover, the prototype realized a 100-times greater power-to-weight ratio of any TMDs yet developed. That ratio is important for mobile applications, like drones, electric vehicles and the ability to charge expeditionary equipment on the move. When looking at the specific power – a measure of electrical power output per unit weight of the solar cell – the prototype produced 4.4 watts per gram, a figure competitive with other current-day thin-film solar cells, including other experimental prototypes. “We think we can increase this crucial ratio another ten times through optimization,” Saraswat said, adding that they estimate the practical limit of their TMD cells to be a remarkable 46 watts per gram.”

Source: https://news.stanford.edu/

Thin Heat Shield For Superfast Aircraft

The world of aerospace increasingly relies on carbon fiber reinforced polymer composites to build the structures of satellites, rockets and jet aircraft. But the life of those materials is limited by how they handle heat.

A team of FAMU-FSU College of Engineering researchers from Florida State University’s High-Performance Materials Institute (HPMI) is developing a design for a heat shield that better protects those extremely fast machines. Their work will be published in the November edition of Carbon .

Right now, our flight systems are becoming more and more high-speed, even going into hypersonic systems, which are five times the speed of sound,” said Professor Richard Liang, director of HPMI. “When you have speeds that high, there’s more heat on a surface. Therefore, we need a much better thermal protection system.”

The team used carbon nanotubes, which are linked hexagons of carbon atoms in the shape of a cylinder, to build the heat shields. Sheets of those nanotubes are also known as “buckypaper,” a material with incredible abilities to conduct heat and electricity that has been a focus of study at HPMI. By soaking the buckypaper in a resin made of a compound called phenol, the researchers were able to create a lightweight, flexible material that is also durable enough to potentially protect the body of a rocket or jet from the intense heat it faces while flying.

Existing heat shields are often very thick compared to the base they protect, said Ayou Hao, a research faculty member at HPMI. This design lets engineers build a very thin shield, like a sort of skin that protects the aircraft and helps support its structure. After building heat shields of varying thicknesses, the researchers put them to the test.

One test involved applying a flame to the samples to see how they prevented heat from reaching the carbon fiber layer they were meant to protect. After that, the researchers bent the samples to see how strong they remained. They found the samples with sheets of buckypaper were better than control samples at dispersing heat and keeping it from reaching the base layer. They also stayed strong and flexible compared to control samples made without protective layers of nanotubes.

That flexibility is a helpful quality. The nanotubes are less vulnerable to cracking at high temperatures compared to ceramics, a typical heat shield material. They’re also lightweight, which is helpful for engineers who want to reduce the weight of anything on an aircraft that doesn’t help the way it flies.

How To Create Electricity From Heat

A University of Maryland-led team of researchers has created a heat-to-electricity device that runs on ions and which could someday harness the body’s heat to provide energy.

Led by UMD researchers Liangbing Hu, Robert Briber and Tian Li of the department of materials science, and Siddhartha Das of mechanical engineering, the team transformed a piece of wood into a flexible membrane that generates energy from the same type of electric current (ions) that the human body runs on. This energy is generated using charged channel walls and other unique properties of the wood’s natural nanostructures. With this new wood-based technology, they can use a small temperature differential to efficiently generate ionic voltage, as demonstrated in a paper published in the journal Nature Materials.

If you’ve ever been outside during a lightning storm, you’ve seen that generating charge between two very different temperatures is easy. But for small temperature differences, it is more difficult. However, the team says they have succesfully tackled this challenge.  Hu said they now have “demonstrated their proof-of-concept device, to harvest low-grade heat using nanoionic behavior of processed wood nanostructures”.

Trees grow channels that move water between the roots and the leaves. These are made up of fractally-smaller channels, and at the level of a single cell, channels just nanometers or less across. The team has harnessed these channels to regulate ions.

The researchers used basswood, which is a fast-growing tree with low environmental impact. They treated the wood and removed two components lignin, that makes the wood brown and adds strength, and hemicellulose, which winds around the layers of cells binding them together. This gives the remaining cellulose its signature flexibility.  This process also converts the structure of the cellulose from type I to type II which is a key to enhancing ion conductivity.

A membrane, made of a thin slice of wood, was bordered by platinum electrodes, with sodium-based electrolyte infiltrated into the cellulose. The regulate the ion flow inside the tiny channels and generate electrical signal. “The charged channel walls can establish an electrical field that appears on the nanofibers and thus help effectively regulate ion movement under a thermal gradient,” said Tian Li, first author of the paper.

Source: https://www.umdrightnow.umd.edu/