DIDCOT, ENGLAND (July 8, 11:45 a.m. ET) — The United Kingdom's Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) has reported a scientific advance that “promises a revolution” in the ease and cost of using solar energy cells.
The study, published in the journal Advanced Energy Materials, shows that even when using very simple and inexpensive manufacturing methods — where flexible polymer layers are deposited over large areas like cling film — efficient solar cell structures can be made.
Scientists from the Universities of Sheffield and Cambridge used the ISIS Neutron Source and Diamond Light Source at the STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire to probe the internal structure and properties of the solar cell materials non-destructively, so as to optimize the various processing steps and hence the overall cell performance.
Polymer solar cells are much cheaper to produce than conventional silicon cells, and could be produced in large quantities. The study showed that when complex mixtures of molecules in solution are spread onto a surface, like varnishing a table top, the different molecules separate to the top and bottom of the layer in a way that maximises the efficiency of the resulting solar cell.
Andrew Parnell of the University of Sheffield said: “Our results provide insights into how ultra-cheap domestic and industrial solar energy panels can be manufactured on a large scale. Rather than using complex and expensive fabrication methods to create a specific semiconductor nanostructure, high-volume printing could produce nano-scale (60nm) films of solar cells that are over a thousand times thinner than the width of a human hair. These films could then be used to make cost-effective, light and easily transportable plastic cell devices such as solar panels.”
Professor Richard Jones of the University of Sheffield said: “In a couple of hours, enough energy from sunlight falls on the Earth to satisfy the energy needs of its population for a whole year, but we need to be able to harness this on a much bigger scale than we do now. Cheap and efficient polymer solar cells that can cover huge areas could help move us into a new age of renewable energy.”
The research was funded with a grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). A new grant will enable the structural and functional studies to continue, as well as examining new materials and innovative processes for high-volume manufacture and commercialization.
STFC owns and operates the ISIS neutron Source and is the majority shareholder in Diamond Light Source.