Nanotech breakthrough aids quest for viable alternative energy sources

November 8, 2005

At a time when oil prices are reaching record highs and people are bracing for winter heating bills, researchers at Wake Forest University's Center for Nanotechnology and Molecular Materials have made significant strides in improving the efficiency of organic or flexible solar cells.

Traditional silicon solar panels are heavy and bulky and convert about 20 percent of the light that hits them to useful electrical power. For years, researchers have worked to create flexible, or "conformal," organic solar cells that can be wrapped around surfaces, rolled up or even painted onto structures, but the best scientists have been able to do is about 3 percent efficiency, until now.

Researchers at Wake Forest, with the help of researchers at New Mexico State University, have achieved an efficiency rate for organic solar cells of almost 6 percent. In order to be considered a viable technology, the solar cells must be able to convert about 10 percent of the energy in sunlight to electricity. Wake Forest researchers hope to reach 10 percent by October 2006, said David Carroll, director of the nanotechnology center at Wake Forest.

"The consumer market would be really open to having these conformal systems if you could, for instance, roll them up and put them away," said Carroll, who is also an associate professor in Wake Forest's physics department. "Imagine a group of hikers with a tent that when you unrolled the tent and put it up, it could generate its own power. Imagine if the paint on your car that is getting hot in the sun was instead converting part of that heat to recharge your battery."

Carroll said flexible, organic solar cells also offer several possibilities for military use.

"The military would obviously want something like that because you could only put maybe tens of those big solar panels on a transport, but you could put hundreds of ultra-thin flexible ones on a transport and supply half the army," he said.

Most experts have estimated that flexible, solar cell technology for consumers was about a decade away, but Carroll said the new breakthrough at Wake Forest and NMSU means that consumers could be using this technology in the next five years.

Using a set of polymer coatings, researchers at Wake Forest constructed a nanophase within the polymer called a "mesostructure." The "mesostructure" changes the properties of the plastic and makes it better for collecting light. The researchers also removed the current from the polymer coating, Carroll said.

A test system at Wake Forest's nanotechnology center was used to simulate the sun, Carroll said, and the simulated spectrum was precisely measured and shot onto the organic solar cell, which appeared as a thin coat of paint. Devices at the center have registered almost 6 percent efficiency.

This breakthrough was announced in October at the Santa Fe Workshop on Nanoengineered Materials and Macro-Molecular Technologies, which was sponsored by Wake Forest's nanotechnology center.

Source: Wake Forest University (By Jacob McConnico)

Explore further: Research uncovers potential health risks of travel to Mars

Related Stories

Research uncovers potential health risks of travel to Mars

March 8, 2017

Sending a manned mission to Mars requires more than a powerful launch rocket. Prep work also includes learning how a three-year space flight could affect the human body. With funding from the National Aeronautics and Space ...

The battle to save Bangkok's 'Green Lung'

March 2, 2017

Leaping out from Bangkok's vast concrete sprawl is a kidney-shaped green space, home to hundreds of plant and bird species, and where cars are outnumbered by bicyles.

Plastic solar cell efficiency breaks record

April 19, 2007

The global search for a sustainable energy supply is making significant strides at Wake Forest University as researchers at the university’s Center for Nanotechnology and Molecular Materials have announced that they have ...

Recommended for you

Cities and monuments switch off for Earth Hour

March 26, 2017

The Empire State Building and United Nations headquarters in New York joined other iconic buildings and monuments around the world plunging into darkness for sixty minutes on Saturday to mark Earth Hour and draw attention ...

Study into who is least afraid of death

March 24, 2017

A new study examines all robust, available data on how fearful we are of what happens once we shuffle off this mortal coil. They find that atheists are among those least afraid of dying... and, perhaps not surprisingly, ...

Controlling ice formation

March 24, 2017

(Phys.org)—Researchers have demonstrated that ice crystals will grow along straight lines in a controlled way on microgrooved surfaces. Compared to the random formation of ice crystals on smooth surfaces, the ice on the ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.