Scientists make solar energy breakthrough

Researchers at Canada's National Institute for Nanotechnology (NINT) and the University of Alberta say they have engineered an approach that is leading to improved performance of plastic solar cells (hybrid organic solar cells). The development of inexpensive, mass-produced plastic solar panels is a goal of intense interest for many of the world's scientists and engineers because of the high cost and shortage of the ultra-high purity silicon and other materials normally required.

Plastic solar cells are made up of layers of different materials, each with a specific function, called a sandwich structure. Jillian Buriak, a professor of chemistry at the U of A, NINT principal investigator and member of the research team, uses a simple analogy to describe the approach:

"Consider a clubhouse sandwich, with many different layers. One layer absorbs the light, another helps to generate the electricity, and others help to draw the electricity out of the device. Normally, the layers don't stick well, and so the electricity ends up stuck and never gets out, leading to inefficient devices. We are working on the mayonnaise, the mustard, the butter and other 'special sauces' that bring the sandwich together, and make each of the layers work together. That makes a better sandwich, and makes a better solar cell, in our case".

After two years of research, these U of A and NINT scientists have, by only working on one part of the sandwich, seen improvements of about 30 per cent in the efficiency of the working model.

Michael Brett, professor of electrical and computer engineering, NINT principal investigator and member of the research team is optimistic saying: "our team is so incredibly cross-disciplinary, with people from engineering, physics and chemistry backgrounds all working towards this common goal of cheap manufacturable solar cells. This collaboration is extremely productive because of the great team with such diverse backgrounds, [although] there is still so much more for us to do, which is exciting."

The team estimates it will be five to seven years before plastic solar panels will be mass produced but Buriak adds that when it happens solar energy will be available to everyone. She says the next generation of solar technology belongs to plastic.

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July 23, 2009 at 3:01 PM

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