Surrey University reveals low-cost solar power breakthrough

Posted on 20 Dec 2012 by Tim Brown

Researchers at the University of Surrey's Advanced Technology Institute have successfully created a carbon nanotube photovoltaic solar cell with record efficiency which promises low manufacturing cost and could transform the economics of energy production.

Researchers at the University of Surrey’s Advanced Technology Institute have reported a new material consisting of polymer-wrapped carbon nanotubes that has a unique combination of properties related to light capture, efficient use of electrical energy and manufacturability. It can replace commonly-used polymers which have limited lifetimes due to moisture absorption.

The potential of this material has already been demonstrated by the construction of a solar cell with power conversion efficiency of 7.6% – a record for nanotube-based solar cells which improves on previous performance by 35%. In addition to the application in solar cells, the new material may find applications in light-emitting devices and displays, sensors, and printable electronics for tags, for example.

An international research effort has been pursuing the goal of low-cost high-efficiency solar cells by developing new materials, structures and device concepts. One of the main focuses has been on organic materials, which are suitable for cost-effective manufacture on a large scale and can be produced with large active areas on cheap, flexible substrates. Unfortunately, their efficiency is still low compared to the best traditional photovoltaic materials, and those with the highest efficiency suffer from limited lifetimes or sensitivity to the environment.

One approach to improving these materials has been to combine them with inorganic materials, in particular by using new nanostructured materials that are compatible with the lost-cost manufacturing processes for organic photovoltaics. This has been the approach of scientists at Surrey Univeristy.

The research team was led by Professor Ravi Silva who remarked: “The combination of organics materials with nanotechnology is starting to look very promising for electronic and photonic devices and systems with better performance or new capabilities. It is only by combining the expertise of researchers specialising in material synthesis, device production, advanced characterisation and theoretical modelling that this new landscape of materials can by fully explored and the benefits realised.

“Improving the availability and security of energy is one of the most tangible ways that scientists and technologists can contribute to future generations and society.”

The research findings will be published in the journal ACS Nano. This work and a wide range of activities in related fields of nanoelectronics, photonics, and applications of ion beams were also presented at the Advanced Technology Institute’s Open Day on Tuesday 18th December, which marked the ATI’s 10th Anniversary.