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/

Solar Cells with 30-year Lifetimes

A new transparency-friendly solar cell design could marry high efficiencies with 30-year estimated lifetimes, research led by the University of Michigan has shown. It may pave the way for windows that also provide solar power.

Solar energy is about the cheapest form of energy that mankind has ever produced since the industrial revolution,” said Stephen Forrest, Professor of Electrical Engineering, who led the research. “With these devices used on windows, your building becomes a power plant.”

While silicon remains king for solar panel efficiency, it isn’t transparent. For window-friendly solar panels, researchers have been exploring organic—or carbon-basedmaterials. The challenge for Forrest’s team was how to prevent very efficient organic light-converting materials from degrading quickly during use.

The strength and the weakness of these materials lie in the molecules that transfer the photogenerated electrons to the electrodes, the entrance points to the circuit that either uses or stores the solar power. These materials are known generally as “non-fullerene acceptors” to set them apart from the more robust but less efficient “fullerene acceptors” made of nanoscale carbon mesh. Solar cells made with non-fullerene acceptors that incorporate sulfur can achieve silicon-rivaling efficiencies of 18%, but they do not last as long.

The team, including researchers at North Carolina State University and Tianjin University and Zhejiang University in China, set out to change that. In their experiments, they showed that without protecting the sunlight-converting material, the efficiency fell to less than 40% of its initial value within 12 weeks under the equivalent of 1 sun’s illumination.

Non-fullerene acceptors cause very high efficiency, but contain weak bonds that easily dissociate under high energy photons, especially the UV [ultraviolet] photons common in sunlight,” said Yongxi Li, U-M assistant research scientist in electrical engineering and computer science and first author of the paper in Nature Communications.

Source: https://news.umich.edu/

Invisible Plastic For Super Efficient Solar Panels

Antireflection (AR) coatings on plastics have a multitude of practical applications, including glare reduction on eyeglasses, computer monitors and the display on your smart-phone when outdoors. Now, researchers at Penn State have developed an AR coating that improves on existing coatings to the extent that it can make transparent plastics, such as Plexiglas, virtually invisible.

Plastic dome coated with a new antireflection coating (right), and uncoated dome (left)

This discovery came about as we were trying to make higher-efficiency solar panels,” said Chris Giebink, associate professor of electrical engineering, Penn State. “Our approach involved concentrating light onto small, high-efficiency solar cells using plastic lenses, and we needed to minimize their reflection loss.”

They needed an antireflection coating that worked well over the entire solar spectrum and at multiple angles as the sun crossed the sky. They also needed a coating that could stand up to weather over long periods of time outdoors. “We would have liked to find an off-the-shelf solution, but there wasn’t one that met our performance requirements,” he said. “So, we started looking for our own solution.”

That was a tall order. Although it is comparatively easy to make a coating that will eliminate reflection at a particular wavelength or in a particular direction, one that could fit all their criteria did not exist. For instance, eyeglass AR coatings are targeted to the narrow visible portion of the spectrum. But the solar spectrum is about five times as broad as the visible spectrum, so such a coating would not perform well for a concentrating solar cell system.

Reflections occur when light travels from one medium, such as air, into a second medium, in this case plastic. If the difference in their refractive index, which specifies how fast light travels in a particular material, is large — air has a refractive index of 1 and plastic 1.5 — then there will be a lot of reflection. The lowest index for a natural coating material such as magnesium fluoride or Teflon is about 1.3. The refractive index can be graded — slowly varied — between 1.3 and 1.5 by blending different materials, but the gap between 1.3 and 1 remains.

In a paper recently posted online ahead of print in the journal Nano Letters, Giebink and coauthors describe a new process to bridge the gap between Teflon and air. They used a sacrificial molecule to create nanoscale pores in evaporated Teflon, thereby creating a graded index Teflon-air film that fools light into seeing a smooth transition from 1 to 1.5, eliminating essentially all reflections.

The interesting thing about Teflon, which is a polymer, is when you heat it up in a crucible, the large polymer chains cleave into smaller fragments that are small enough to volatize and send up a vapor flux. When these land on a substrate they can repolymerize and form Teflon,” Giebink explained.


We’ve been interacting with a number of companies that are looking for improved antireflection coatings for plastic, and some of the applications have been surprising,” he said. “They range from eliminating glare from the plastic domes that protect security cameras to eliminating stray reflections inside virtual/augmented -reality headsets.”

Source: https://news.psu.edu/

Perovskite Could Convert Up To 44% Of Light Into Electricity

Perovskites are a family of crystals that show promising properties for applications in nano-technology. However, one useful property that until now was unobserved in perovskites is so-called carrier multiplication – an effect that makes materials much more efficient in converting light into electricity. New research, led by University of Amsterdam (UvA-IoP) physicists Dr Chris de Weerd and Dr Leyre Gomez from the group of Prof. Tom Gregorkiewicz, has now shown that certain perovskites in fact do have this desirable propertyCrystals are configurations of atoms, molecules or ions, that are ordered in a structure that repeats itself in all directions. We have all encountered some crystals in everyday life: ordinary salt, diamond and even snowflakes are examples. What is perhaps less well-known is that certain crystals show very interesting properties when their size is not that of our everyday life but that of nanometers – a few billionths of a meter.

Perovskites – named after 19th century Russian mineralogist Lev Perovski – form a particular family of materials that all share the same crystal structure. These perovskites have many desirable electronic properties, making them useful for constructing for example LEDs, TV-screens, solar cells and lasers. A property which so far had not been shown to exist in perovskites is carrier multiplication. When semiconductors – in solar cells, for example – convert the energy of light into electricity, this is usually done one particle at a time: a single infalling photon results in a single excited electron (and the corresponding ‘hole’ where the electron used to be) that can carry an electrical current. However, in certain materials, if the infalling light is energetic enough, further electron-hole pairs can be excited as a result; it is this process that is known as carrier multiplication.

Until now, carrier multiplication had not been reported for perovskites. That we have now found it is of great fundamental impact on this upcoming material. For example, this shows that perovskite nanocrystals can be used to construct very efficient photodetectors, and in the future perhaps solar cells”, says De Weerd, who successfully defended her PhD thesis based on this and other research last week.

When carrier multiplication occurs, the conversion from light into electricity can become much more efficient. For example, in ordinary solar cells there is a theoretical limit (the so-called Shockley-Queisser limit) on the amount of energy that can be converted in this way: at most a little over 33% of the solar power gets turned into electrical power. In semiconductor nanocrystals that feature the carrier multiplication effect, however, a maximum efficiency of up to 44% is predicted.

The paper in which the researchers report on their findings was published in Nature Communications this week.

Source: http://iop.uva.nl/

A self-powered heart monitor taped to the skin

Scientists in Japan have developed a human-friendly, ultra-flexible organic sensor powered by sunlight, which acts as a self-powered heart monitor. Previously, they developed a flexible photovoltaic cell that could be incorporated into textiles. In this study, they directly integrated a sensory device, called an organic electrochemical transistor—a type of electronic device that can be used to measure a variety of biological functions—into a flexible organic solar cell. Using it, they were then able to measure the heartbeats of rats and humans under bright light conditions.

Self-powered devices that can be fit directly on human skin or tissue have great potential for medical applications. They could be used as physiological sensors for the real-time  or the real-time monitoring of heart or brain function in the human body. However, practical realization has been impractical due to the bulkiness of batteries and insufficient power supply, or due to noise interference from the electrical supply, impeding conformability and long-term operation.

The key requirement for such devices is a stable and adequate energy supply. A key advance in this study, published in Nature, is the use of a nano-grating surface on the light absorbers of the solar cell, allowing for high photo-conversion efficiency (PCE) and light angle independency. Thanks to this, the researchers were able to achieve a PCE of 10.5 percent and a high power-per-weight ratio of 11.46 watts per gram, approaching the “magic number” of 15 percent that will make organic photovoltaics competitive with their silicon-based counterparts.

To demonstrate a practical application, sensory devices called organic electrochemical transistors were integrated with organic solar cells on an ultra-thin (1 μm) substrate, to allow the self-powered detection of heartbeats either on the skin or to record electrocardiographic (ECG) signals directly on the heart of a rat. They found that the device worked well at a lighting level of 10,000 lux, which is equivalent to the light seen when one is in the shade on a clear sunny day, and experienced less noise than similar devices connected to a battery, presumably because of the lack of electric wires.

According to Kenjiro Fukuda of the RIKEN Center for Emergent Matter Science, “This is a nice step forward in the quest to make self-powered medical monitoring devices that can be placed on human tissue. There are some important remaining tasks, such as the development of flexible power storage devices, and we will continue to collaborate with other groups to produce practical devices. Importantly, for the current experiments we worked on the analog part of our device, which powers the device and conducts the measurement. There is also a digital silicon-based portion, for the transmission of data, and further work in that area will also help to make such devices practical.

The research was carried out by RIKEN in collaboration with researchers from the University of Tokyo.

Source: http://www.riken.jp/