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Scientists Use Nanotech to Develop Ultra-Thin, Flexible PV Cells

Researchers at the University of Texas in Dallas have won a grant to develop use nanotechnology to create thinner, lighter and more versatile solar modules.

The National Science Foundation awarded $390,000 to Dr. Anton Malko and Dr. Yuri Gartstein, both from the university’s Department of Physics, and Dr. Yves Chabal from the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, to further their research on ultra-thin film PV cells.

Commercially available traditional silicon solar cells are made from silicon that is a couple of hundred microns thick,  but this team’s goal is to reduce this down to one hundred microns while still maintaining efficiency.

Dr. Anton Malko (left) works in the lab with Hue Minh Nguyen, a physics graduate student who has assisted in the research. Credit: UT Dallas

“Solar cells that are 100 microns thick are rigid and fragile. At the thickness we are investigating, devices would not only be lighter, but they also become flexible,” Dr. Malko said.

The team’s approach employs experimental PV structures that use accurately positioned nanosized crystal particles known as “quantum dots” to more efficiently absorb the sun’s energy. These quantum dots are layered in between thin nanomembranes of silicon to transfer the absorbed energy and convert it to electricity.

Currently, the scientists focus on how the energy is transferred through the PV structures and finding the optimum placement of the quantum dots, thickness of each layer and other aspects of the structure.

“There is a large market and application niche for flexible solar cells, such as on clothing or backpacks for hikers, or in situations where you need portable sources to power electronics,” said Dr. Malko. Their research could contribute to the development of even thinner and more flexible solar cells, which would allow PV technology to be used in a wider variety of ways than it is today.

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