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Researchers at MIT have developed a method to manufacture ultrathin, flexible solar cells using semiconductor inks and scalable fabrication techniques. They produce 18 times more power per kilogram and are thinner than a human hair, as reported by an MIT blog article.
easy to mount on any solid surface when adhered to a sturdy yet lightweight cloth. They can be worn as a source of portable energy, and they can be carried and set up quickly in far-flung areas to aid in emergencies. These solar cells are thin and lightweight, making it possible to laminate them onto a wide variety of surfaces, from sails on boats to tents and tarps used in disaster relief efforts. You could use them to sail around Australia if you wanted to. Researchers claim their lightweight solar technology requires nothing in the way of installation and can be seamlessly incorporated into existing infrastructure.
When assessing a new solar cell technology, conventional measures focus on how efficiently it converts sunlight into electricity and how much it costs per watt. Integrability, or how easily the new technology can be implemented, is also crucial. The current effort is motivated by the lightweight solar textiles that make integration possible. According to Vladimir Bulovi, head of emerging technologies at MIT and leader of the Organic and Nanostructured Electronics Laboratory, "we seek to speed solar adoption given the present urgent need to deploy new carbon-free sources of energy".
Mayuran Saravana pavanantham, a PhD candidate in electrical engineering and computer science, and Jeremiah Mwaura, a research scientist at MIT's Research Laboratory of Electronics, are the other authors. The research paper was published on December 9 in Small Methods, where readers may find much more information for those interested in the technical specifics of this discovery. Thankfully, the paper is not restricted to subscribers and can be read by anybody with access to the web.
The Road to Ultra-Thin Solar Cells
Due to their fragility, conventional silicon solar cells are typically packaged in heavy aluminium frames and enclosed in protective glass. Because of their bulk and rigidity, they can only be used in specific situations.
The search for printable solar cells dates back more than a decade. A group of researchers at MIT's ONE Lab developed a new type of thin film material six years ago and used it to create solar cells so light they could float on top of a soap bubble. However, the fabrication of these ultrathin solar cells involved complicated, vacuum-based methods that can be both expensive and difficult to scale up.
These new ultrathin, flexible solar cells are made using nanomaterials that come in the form of printable electronic inks. Researchers at MIT use a slot-die coater to deposit layers of electronic components onto a prepared, releasable substrate that is only 3 microns thick while working in the MIT nano clean room. The solar module's final step is the deposition of an electrode on its framework using screen printing (a process not dissimilar from the silkscreening of T-shirt designs). Researchers can then remove the ultrathin (15 microns) printed module from the plastic substrate, creating a lightweight solar gadget.
Such thin, freestanding solar panels would be difficult to handle and deploy due to their fragility. The MIT group looked for a lightweight, flexible, and strong substrate to stick the solar cells to. Fabrics were chosen because they offer the best combination of mechanical resilience and flexibility at a low weight.
They discovered the perfect material, a composite fabric called Dyneema, which weighs only 13 grammes per square meter. Strong enough to be used as ropes, the threads of this fabric were instrumental in rescuing the Costa Concordia from the depths of the Mediterranean (after its captain steered it too close to shore to wave to family and friends, whereupon it hit a rock and sank). The solar panels are attached to the cloth by a layer of UV-curable adhesive just a few microns thick. This results in a solar construction that is both lightweight and structurally strong.
It may seem easier to just print the solar cells on the fabric, but this would restrict designers to using only fabrics and other receptive surfaces that are chemically and thermally compatible with all the manufacturing procedures required to manufacture the devices. Our method separates solar cell production from system integration.
Outshining conventional solar panels
Based on their testing, MIT researchers determined that the device could produce 730 watts of electricity per kilogramme when used in a freestanding configuration and around 370 watts per kilogramme when used in a deployment configuration on the high-strength Dyneema fabric. That's equivalent to producing 18 times as much energy per kilogramme as traditional solar cells.
A typical Massachusetts rooftop solar system is around 8,000 watts. "Our fabric photovoltaics, which are capable of producing the same amount of power, would only increase the weight of a home's roof by roughly 20 kilos (44 pounds)," the co-author notes. After being folded and unrolled more than 500 times, the super-thin solar cells still generated over 90% of their original power.
The MIT solar cells are more lightweight and flexible than conventional cells, but they still need to be enclosed in a protective casing to prevent damage from the environment. Cell performance may degrade as a result of the interaction of the carbon-based organic material used in their construction with moisture and oxygen in the air.
Mwaura explains that the team is working on ultrathin packaging solutions that would only marginally increase the weight of the current ultralight devices. "Encasing these solar cells in heavy glass, as is standard with the traditional silicon solar cells, would minimise the value of the present advancement."
We are trying to improve the performance and portability of these ultralight and flexible solar structures by minimising the amount of non-solar active material they include.One way we've found to expedite production is to print the releasable substrates, just as we do with the rest of our device's layers. He continues, "This would hasten the process of bringing this technology to market."
We're well aware of how challenging "transition to market" might be. When searching the CleanTechnica archives, one finds a 2009 article and a 2016 article regarding printed solar cells, both written about enterprises that have since vanished without a trace. The hardest thing is just waiting, as Tom Petty sang.
Since the benefit of the current improvement would be diminished if the solar cells were encased in thick glass like conventional silicon solar cells, the team is working on ultrathin packaging options that would only marginally increase the weight of the existing ultralight devices. The tiny profile and light weight of the solar cells could lead to their being used in a wide variety of applications if these sorts of issues can be resolved. Some examples of how they could be used to generate power include attaching them to the sails of a boat, the exterior of tents during disaster recovery, or the wings of drones, but in principle they could be used to do so almost anywhere.
Can you explain the operation of solar cells that can be printed?
To this day, silicon remains the material of choice for solar panels. However, the Australian researchers are employing organic semiconductor polymers that are subsequently degraded to produce ink. The generated ink may absorb sunlight and generate power.
Are printable solar panels ever possible?
Inkjet printing on a sheet of paper has made it possible to create ultrathin solar cells. As a result, solar panels may be made at a lower cost and installed practically anywhere. The idea that our homes could be powered by solar cells in our curtains, blinds, and windows may still seem like science fiction.
Can solar panels be printed with a 3D printer?
University of Stanford Researchers Unveil 3D-Printed Solar Panels Clemens M. wrote the script, which was published on August 4, 2022. The optical concentrator for solar panels was designed by researchers at Stanford University in California and printed using 3D printing technology.
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