Kramer’s Invention makes solar power cheaper and more efficient

Researchers
have developed a new technique for spraying solar cells onto products, making
solar power cheaper and more efficient. Pretty soon, powering your tablet could
be as simple as wrapping it in cling film. That’s Illan Kramer’s hope. Kramer
and colleagues have just invented a way to spray solar cells onto flexible
surfaces using miniscule light-sensitive materials known as colloidal quantum
dots (CQDs) ­ a major step in making spray-on solar cells easy and cheap to
manufacture. “My dream is that one day you’ll have two technicians with
Ghostbusters backpacks come to your house and spray your roof,“ says Kramer, a
post-doctoral at the University of Toronto and IBM Canada’s Research and
Development Centre.

 
Credit:
Illan Kramer

Solar-sensitive
CQDs printed onto a flexible film could be used to coat all kinds of weirdly shaped
surfaces, from patio furniture to an airplane’s wing. A surface the size of a
car roof wrapped with CQD-coated film would produce enough energy to power
three 100-watt light bulbs ­ or 24 compact fluorescents. He calls his system
sprayLD, a play on the manufacturing process called ALD, short for atomic layer
deposition, in which materials are laid down on a surface one atom-thickness at
a time. Until now, it was only possible to incorporate light-sensitive CQDs
onto surfaces through batch processing ­ an inefficient, slow and expensive
assembly-line approach to chemical coating. SprayLD blasts a liquid containing CQDs
directly onto flexible surfaces, such as film or plastic, like printing a
newspaper by applying ink onto a roll of paper.

Credit:
Illan Kramer

This
roll-to-roll coating method makes incorporating solar cells into existing
manufacturing processes much simpler. In two recent papers in the journals
Advanced Materials and Applied Physics Letters, Kramer showed that the sprayLD
method can be used on flexible materials without any major loss in solar-cell
efficiency. Kramer built his sprayLD device using parts that are readily
available and rather affordable ­ he sourced a spray nozzle used in steel mills
to cool steel with a fine mist of water, and a few regular air brushes from an
art store. “This is something you can build in a Junkyard Wars fashion, which is
basically how we did it,” says Kramer. “We think of this as a no-compromise
solution for shifting from batch processing to roll-to-roll.”

“As
quantum dot solar technology advances rapidly in performance, it’s important to
determine how to scale them and make this new class of solar technologies
manufacturable,” said Professor Ted Sargent, Kramer’s supervisor. “We were
thrilled when this attractively-manufacturable spray-coating process also led
to superior performance devices showing improved control and purity.” In a
third paper in the journal ACS Nano, Kramer and his colleagues used IBM’s
BlueGeneQ supercomputer to model how and why the sprayed CQDs perform just as
well as ­ and in some cases better than ­ their batch-processed counterparts.

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