Solar cells could soon be produced more cheaply using nanoparticle “inks” that allow them to be printed like newspaper or painted onto the sides of buildings or rooftops to absorb electricity-producing sunlight.
University of Texas, Austin chemical engineer Brian Korgel and his team have been working on this low-cost, nanomaterials solution to photovoltaics manufacturing. His team recently showed proof-of-concept in an issue of Journal of the American Chemical Society.
Korgel is hoping to cut costs to one-tenth of the current price of solar cells by replacing the standard manufacturing method of gas-phase deposition in a vacuum chamber, a process that requires high temperatures and is relatively expensive.
“That’s essentially what’s needed to make solar-cell technology and photovoltaics widely adopted,” Korgel says. “The sun provides a nearly unlimited energy resource, but existing solar energy harvesting technologies are prohibitively expensive and cannot compete with fossil fuels.”
The inks could be printed on a roll-to-roll printing process on a plastic substrate or stainless steel. And, the prospect of being able to paint the “inks” onto a rooftop or building is not far-fetched.
“You’d have to paint the light-absorbing material and a few other layers as well,” Korgel says. “This is one step in the direction towards paintable solar cells.”
Korgel uses the light-absorbing nanomaterials because their size allows for new physical properties that can help enable higher-efficiency devices. Another advantage is that the inks are semi-transparent, a property that suggests the films may find uses in window-like applications in addition to roof and panel surfaces.
Korgel and his team are using copper indium gallium selenide. “CIGS has some potential advantages over silicon,” Korgel says. “It’s a direct band gap semiconductor, which means that you need much less material to make a solar cell, and that’s one of the biggest potential advantages.”
So far, his team’s solar cell prototypes have efficiencies of only one percent, but he is optimistic. “If we get to 10 percent, then there’s real potential for commercialization,” Korgel said. “If it works, I think you could see it being used in three to five years.”