Researchers Strive to Make Solar Technology Affordable

Three research projects, led by Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL), are searching for cheaper materials and manufacturing techniques in order to make solar panels more affordable.

The studies are aimed at improving an ink jet-like printing technique for producing flexible solar paneling, making thin-film solar panels more efficient and understanding structural changes in solar panel components that are heated during manufacturing. Building experimental chambers for performing X-ray analyses of the solar materials and processing techniques will involve many scientific disciplines, from physics to chemical engineering.

“Each project will run for three years,” said Mike Toney, who leads the SSRL Materials Science Division and will participate in two of the projects. "These are challenging experiments. One of the reasons they haven't been done before is that they're not easy."

Toney and Stefan Mannsfeld, an SSRL materials science researcher, received a Laboratory Directed Research and Development grant from SLAC to conduct research on printing processes for producing solar panel layers. Flexible solar panels, made from plastics or similar materials, are a cheap alternative to conventional silicon-based panels. But today's flexible panels are several times less efficient than conventional panels. A low-cost printing technique using solar panel materials as ink could be the solution to lowering the cost and possibly improving the performance of flexible panels.

Mannsfeld and Toney, along with other researchers, will study the nanoscale details of this printing process, with a goal of improving the technique and boosting the panels' efficiency. This project, which uses an X-ray analysis technique known as scattering, is slated to receive $878,578 over three years.

The second project will study how electrons travel throughout solar panel layers, which would lead to improvements in design, including the development of new top-layer materials the allow light through more efficiently. A research team led by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado will use X-ray spectroscopy and diffraction techniques at SSRL to study emitter-layer materials.

The final project will study how the manufacturing of some solar panels incorporates rapid heating. The experiments will study how heat affects layered materials and other components, with a goal of improving the processing and create more efficient solar cells. Samples will be rapidly heated to about 1,000 to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, with data collected in hundredths-of-a-second intervals.