Researchers Develop Thinner And More Powerful Solar Panels
June 26, 2013

New Approach Could Push Solar Panels To New Heights

Lee Rannals for – Your Universe Online

MIT researchers have developed a new approach for solar power that could push the technology to new heights.

The researchers are aiming to produce the thinnest and most lightweight solar panels possible. They said this new approach "pushes towards the ultimate power conversion possible from a material” for solar power.

Jeffrey Grossman, the Carl Richard Soderberg Associate Professor of Power Engineering at MIT, and colleagues wrote in the journal Nano Letters that using material thousands of times thinner and lighter than tissue paper has allowed them to achieve more efficiency.

“Stacking a few layers could allow for higher efficiency, one that competes with other well-established solar cell technologies,” says Marco Bernardi, a postdoc in MIT’s Department of Materials Science, who was the lead author of the paper.

He said lightweight cells could already have great potential in applications like spacecraft, aviation or in remote areas of the developing world. The new solar cells can produce up to 1,000 times more power than conventional photovoltaics, but are just a billionth of a meter in thickness.

“It’s 20 to 50 times thinner than the thinnest solar cell that can be made today,” Grossman adds. “You couldn’t make a solar cell any thinner.”

About half the cost of solar panels today lies in support structures, installation, wiring and control systems, making a slender panel even more advantageous. The material itself is much less expensive than the highly purified silicon used for standard solar cells.

Grossman said that the team's work so far demonstrates the potential of atom-thick materials for solar generation is only the beginning. The materials used for this work are just two of many 2D materials whose potential could be studied.

“There’s a whole zoo of these materials that can be explored,” Grossman says. “My hope is that this work sets the stage for people to think about these materials in a new way.”

Another advantage of using these materials is the long-term stability, even in outdoor conditions. Other solar-cell materials must be protected under heavy and extensive layers of glass, but the MIT team's materials are stable in air, under ultraviolet light, and in moisture.

“I think this is the tip of the iceberg in terms of utilizing [2D] materials for clean energy” Grossman said.

Another group of MIT researchers is also attempting to drop the price of solar panels. Tonio Buonassisi, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at MIT, and colleagues reported in the journal Advanced Materials back in February that they found a way to passivate silicon at room temperatures. This method would significantly drop the price of manufacturing solar cells, as well as computer chips.