New patented fabrication technique key to new solar power technology

Feb 27, 2013 by Colin Poitras
This is an illustration of a working optical rectifying antenna, or rectenna. Credit: (Illustration by Justine Braisted/UConn)

A novel fabrication technique developed by a University of Connecticut engineering professor could provide the breakthrough technology scientists have been looking for to vastly improve the efficiency of today's solar energy systems.

For years, scientists have studied the potential benefits of a new branch of that relies on nanosized antenna arrays theoretically capable of harvesting more than 70 percent of the sun's electromagnetic radiation and simultaneously converting it into usable electric power.

But while nanosized antennas that also serve as rectifiers have shown promise in theory, scientists have lacked the technology required to construct and test them. The fabrication process is immensely challenging. The nano-antennas – known as "rectennas" because of their ability to both absorb and rectify solar energy from alternating current to direct current – must be capable of operating at the speed of visible light and be built in such a way that their core pair of electrodes is a mere 1 or 2 apart, a distance of approximately one millionth of a millimeter, or 30,000 times smaller than the diameter of human hair.

The potential breakthrough lies in a novel fabrication process called selective area (ALD) that was developed by Brian Willis, an associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of Connecticut and the former director of UConn's Chemical Engineering Program.

It is through atomic layer deposition that scientists believe they can finally fabricate a working device. In a rectenna device, one of the two interior electrodes must have a sharp tip, similar to the point of a triangle. The secret is getting the tip of that electrode within one or two nanometers of the opposite electrode, something similar to holding the point of a needle to the plane of a wall. Before the advent of ALD, existing lithographic fabrication techniques had been unable to create such a small space within a working electrical diode. Using sophisticated electronic equipment such as electron guns, the closest scientists could get was about 10 times the required separation. Through atomic layer deposition, Willis has shown he is able to precisely coat the tip of the rectenna with layers of individual copper atoms until a gap of about 1.5 nanometers is achieved. The process is self-limiting and stops at 1.5 nanometer separation.

The size of the gap is critical because it creates an ultra-fast tunnel junction between the rectenna's two , allowing a maximum transfer of electricity. The nanosized gap gives energized electrons on the rectenna just enough time to tunnel to the opposite electrode before their electrical current reverses and they try to go back. The triangular tip of the rectenna makes it hard for the electrons to reverse direction, thus capturing the energy and rectifying it to a unidirectional current.

Brian Willis holds a rectenna device. Credit: Sean Flynn/UConn Photo

Impressively, the rectennas, because of their extremely small and fast tunnel diodes, are capable of converting solar radiation in the infrared region through the extremely fast and short wavelengths of visible light – something that has never been accomplished before. Silicon solar panels, by comparison, have a single band gap which, loosely speaking, allows the panel to convert efficiently at only one small portion of the solar spectrum. The rectenna devices don't rely on a band gap and may be tuned to harvest light over the whole solar spectrum, creating maximum efficiency.

Willis and a team of scientists from Penn State Altoona along with SciTech Associates Holdings Inc., a private research and development company based in State College, Pa., recently received a $650,000, three-year grant from the National Science Foundation to fabricate rectennas and search for ways to maximize their performance.

"This new technology could get us over the hump and make solar energy cost-competitive with fossil fuels," says Willis. "This is brand new technology, a whole new train of thought."

The Penn State Altoona research team – which has been exploring the theoretical side of rectennas for more than a decade – is led by physics professor Darin Zimmerman, with fellow physics professors Gary Weisel and Brock Weiss serving as co-investigators. The collaboration also includes Penn State emeritus physics professors Paul Cutler and Nicholas Miskovsky, who are principal members of Scitech Associates.

"The solar power conversion device under development by this collaboration of two universities and an industry subcontractor has the potential to revolutionize green solar power technology by increasing efficiencies, reducing costs, and providing new economic opportunities," Zimmerman says.

"Until the advent of selective atomic layer deposition (ALD), it has not been possible to fabricate practical and reproducible rectenna arrays that can harness from the infrared through the visible," says Zimmerman. "ALD is a vitally important processing step, making the creation of these devices possible. Ultimately, the fabrication, characterization, and modeling of the proposed rectenna arrays will lead to increased understanding of the physical processes underlying these devices, with the promise of greatly increasing the efficiency of solar power conversion technology."

The atomic layer deposition process is favored by science and industry because it is simple, easily reproducible, and scalable for mass production. Willis says the chemical process is particularly applicable for precise, homogenous coatings for nanostructures, nanowires, nanotubes, and for use in the next generation of high-performing semi-conductors and transistors.

The method being used to fabricate rectennas also can be applied to other areas, including enhancing current photovoltaics (the conversion of photo energy to electrical energy), thermoelectrics, infrared sensing and imaging, and chemical sensors.

Over the next year, Willis and his collaborators in Pennsylvania plan to build prototype rectennas and begin testing their efficiency.

"To capture the visible light frequencies, the rectenna have to get smaller than anything we've ever made before, so we're really pushing the limits of what we can do," says Willis. "And the tunnel junctions have to operate at the speed of visible light, so we're pushing down to these really high speeds to the point where the question becomes 'Can these devices really function at this level?' Theoretically we know it is possible, but we won't know for sure until we make and test this device."

Explore further: In-situ nanoindentation study of phase transformation in magnetic shape memory alloys

Related Stories

Patented technique key to new solar power technology

Feb 05, 2013

(—A novel fabrication technique developed by UConn engineering professor Brian Willis could provide the breakthrough technology scientists have been looking for to vastly improve today's solar ...

New energy technologies promise brighter future

Nov 19, 2012

In three studies published in the current issue of Technology and Innovation – Proceedings of the National Academy of Inventors, innovators unveil creative technologies that could change our sources of energy, change our use of energy ...

Plasmonic device converts light into electricity

Nov 09, 2011

( -- While the most common device for converting light into electricity may be photovoltaic (PV) solar cells, a variety of other devices can perform the same light-to-electricity conversion, such ...

Wireless power for the price of a penny

Aug 09, 2012

( -- The newspaper-style printing of electronic equipment has led to a cost-effective device that could change the way we interact with everyday objects.

Recommended for you

'Exotic' material is like a switch when super thin

Apr 18, 2014

( —Ever-shrinking electronic devices could get down to atomic dimensions with the help of transition metal oxides, a class of materials that seems to have it all: superconductivity, magnetoresistance ...

User comments : 3

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

2.3 / 5 (6) Feb 27, 2013
Hi Guys: You already did this one 3 weeks ago:-
3.7 / 5 (3) Feb 27, 2013
As if we didn't have enough of these news about some amazing ground-breaking new techniques in solar energy every day already, you have to post some of them twice. Jeez.
1 / 5 (1) Mar 05, 2013
glad U did I missed it the 1st time. It sounds very promising! The scale I think its' will work but still it will be possible to reach even pico size and truely make this marketable to all at reasonable cost.

More news stories

NASA's space station Robonaut finally getting legs

Robonaut, the first out-of-this-world humanoid, is finally getting its space legs. For three years, Robonaut has had to manage from the waist up. This new pair of legs means the experimental robot—now stuck ...