Pop a solar cell in the microwave, save money and energy

Pop a solar cell in the microwave, save money and energy

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News & Events - Engineering News

August 27, 2012

While the solar industry continues to grow in the U.S. and many other major markets around the world, the future of the technology depends largely upon the ability of engineering research to improve efficiency and reduce manufacturing costs on a constant basis.

A research team at Oregon State University, led by associate professor Greg Herman of the School of Chemical, Biological and Environmental Engineering, has developed a new approach to constructing low-cost solar cells that could help bring down the price of solar energy dramatically.

The engineers found a way to make use of simple microwave heating to speed the construction process for a type of solar cells that has presented major potential in recent years.

Traditional solar cells rely upon crystalline silicon to create the photovoltaic effect that transforms sunlight into power, but there are many other substances or amalgams that can also be used, often without nearly as much of the material.

These so-called "thin film" solar cells, however, can include expensive materials such as indium and gallium.

To address this issue, researchers created a mixture of copper, zinc, tin and sulfur, four quite common materials that are all harmless on their own, as opposed to some of the more exotic components of other types of solar cells.

"All of the elements used in this new compound are benign and inexpensive, and should have good solar cell performance," said Herman. "Several companies are already moving in this direction as prices continue to rise for some alternative compounds that contain more expensive elements like indium. With some improvements in its solar efficiency this new compound should become very commercially attractive."

As researchers attempt to find ways to speed the production of solar cells, this combination has demonstrated some potential for a different type of manufacturing process. By mixing each of those components into an ink, the combination can be applied to solar panel substrates using traditional inkjet printer technology.

The big development from OSU, however, is that the researchers discovered the speed of the reaction that allows the materials to bond into a working solar cell can be dramatically increased simply by replacing traditional ovens with microwave heating.

"This approach should save money, work well and be easier to scale up at commercial levels, compared to traditional synthetic methods," Herman explained. "Microwave technology offers more precise control over heat and energy to achieve the desired reactions."

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