Solar panels as inexpensive as paint? It's possible due to new research

May 13, 2013 by Cory Nealon
Solar panels as inexpensive as paint? It's possible due to research at UB, elsewhere
This is the University at Buffalo assistant professor of electrical engineering. Credit: University at Buffalo

(Phys.org) —Most Americans want the U.S. to place more emphasis on developing solar power, recent polls suggest. A major impediment, however, is the cost to manufacture, install and maintain solar panels. Simply put, most people and businesses cannot afford to place them on their rooftops.

Fortunately, that is changing because researchers such as Qiaoqiang Gan, University at Buffalo assistant professor of electrical engineering, are helping develop a new generation of that produce more power and cost less to manufacture than what's available today.

One of the more promising efforts, which Gan is working on, involves the use of plasmonic-enhanced organic . These devices don't match traditional solar cells in terms of energy production but they are less expensive and - because they are made (or processed) in liquid form - can be applied to a greater variety of surfaces.

Gan detailed the progress of plasmonic-enhanced organic photovoltaic materials in the May 7 edition of the journal Advanced Materials. Co-authors include Filbert J. Bartoli, professor of electrical and computer engineering at Lehigh University, and Zakya Kafafi of the National Science Foundation.

Currently, solar power is produced with either thick polycrystalline or thin-film solar cells made up of such as or . Both are expensive to manufacture, Gan said.

His research involves thin-film solar cells, too, but unlike what's on the market he is using organic materials such as polymers and small molecules that are carbon-based and less expensive.

"Compared with their inorganic counterparts, organic can be fabricated over large areas on rigid or potentially becoming as inexpensive as paint," Gan said.

The reference to paint does not include a price point but rather the idea that photovoltaic cells could one day be applied to surfaces as easily as paint is to walls, he said.

There are drawbacks to organic photovoltaic cells. They have to be thin due to their relatively poor electronic conductive properties. Because they are thin and, thus, without sufficient material to absorb light, it limits their optical absorption and leads to insufficient power conversion efficiency.

Their power conversion efficiency needs to be 10 percent or more to compete in the market, Gan said.

This is a new generation of solar cells, including plasmonic-enhanced organic solar cells. Credit: Wiley-VCH, Weinheim

To achieve that benchmark, Gan and other researchers are incorporating metal nanoparticles and/or patterned plasmonic nanostructures into organic photovoltaic cells. Plasmons are electromagnetic waves and free electrons that can be used to oscillate back and forth across the interface of metals and semiconductors.

Recent material studies suggest they are succeeding, he said. Gan and the paper's co-authors argue that, because of these breakthroughs, there should be a renewed focus on how nanomaterials and plasmonic strategies can create more efficient and affordable thin-film organic solar cells.

Gan is continuing his research by collaborating with several researchers at UB including: Alexander N. Cartwright, professor of electrical engineering and biomedical engineering and UB vice president for research and economic development; Mark T. Swihart, UB professor of chemical and biological engineering and director of the university's Strategic Strength in Integrated Nanostructured Systems; and Hao Zeng, associate professor of physics.

Gan is a member of UB's electrical engineering optics and photonics research group, which includes Cartwright, professors Edward Furlani and Pao-Lo Liu, and Natalia Litchinitser, associate professor.

The group carries out research in nanphotonics, biophotonics, hybrid inorganic/organic materials and devices, nonlinear and fiber optics, metamaterials, nanoplasmonics, optofluidics, microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), biomedical microelectromechanical systems (BioMEMs), biosensing and quantum information processing.

Explore further: High performance semiconductor spray paint could be a game changer for organic electronics

More information: The paper, which included an image of a plasmonic-enhanced organic photovoltaic device on the journal's front page, is available at: onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/adma.201203323/abstract

Related Stories

Forget about leprechauns, engineers are catching rainbows

Feb 15, 2013

(Phys.org)—University at Buffalo engineers have created a more efficient way to catch rainbows, an advancement in photonics that could lead to technological breakthroughs in solar energy, stealth technology ...

Recommended for you

Thinnest feasible nano-membrane produced

Apr 17, 2014

A new nano-membrane made out of the 'super material' graphene is extremely light and breathable. Not only can this open the door to a new generation of functional waterproof clothing, but also to ultra-rapid filtration. The ...

Wiring up carbon-based electronics

Apr 17, 2014

Carbon-based nanostructures such as nanotubes, graphene sheets, and nanoribbons are unique building blocks showing versatile nanomechanical and nanoelectronic properties. These materials which are ordered ...

Making 'bucky-balls' in spin-out's sights

Apr 16, 2014

(Phys.org) —A new Oxford spin-out firm is targeting the difficult challenge of manufacturing fullerenes, known as 'bucky-balls' because of their spherical shape, a type of carbon nanomaterial which, like ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

42afac
1 / 5 (1) May 14, 2013
This is exciting. I think that collectively, humanity should concentrate on energy research, as a mean of developing the other spheres of human development.

More news stories

'Exotic' material is like a switch when super thin

(Phys.org) —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 ...

Innovative strategy to facilitate organ repair

A significant breakthrough could revolutionize surgical practice and regenerative medicine. A team led by Ludwik Leibler from the Laboratoire Matière Molle et Chimie (CNRS/ESPCI Paris Tech) and Didier Letourneur ...

Treating depression in Parkinson's patients

A group of scientists from the University of Kentucky College of Medicine and the Sanders-Brown Center on Aging has found interesting new information in a study on depression and neuropsychological function in Parkinson's ...