MIT student Miles Barr was just announced as one of the Lemelson-MIT Student Prize winners for an innovative solar technology ‘breakthrough’. Barr was awarded $30,000, as were two other award-winning students (from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute).
Barr actually just finished his PhD in chemical engineering from MIT. His achievement was “a pioneering approach to fabricating solar cells on a variety of everyday surfaces,” MIT reports. The hope is that this breakthrough “could lead to widespread adoption of solar power.”
Well, widespread adoption of solar power is on the way, but perhaps MIT means this could lead to it more quickly….
Now, Barr’s breakthrough may sound familiar to some of you — “Barr’s approach, which enables solar cells to be printed directly on common materials like paper and textiles, could reduce the cost of solar energy by eliminating the need for specialized installation,” MIT writes. Glenn covered this MIT solar printing project last July. Here’s a little more on the process from that post:
The MIT team indicates this technique marks a huge departure from the systems that have been used so far to create most solar cells. Traditional cell technology requires exposing the substrates to potentially damaging conditions, either in the form of liquids or high temperatures.
The new printing process uses vapors, not liquids, and temperatures less than 120 degrees Celsius, say the developers, adding: “These ‘gentle’ conditions make it possible to use ordinary untreated paper, cloth or plastic as the substrate on which the solar cells can be printed.”
The process is considerably more complex than printing out a term paper, say the researchers. In order to create such an array of photovoltaic cells on the paper, five layers of material must be deposited onto the same sheet of paper in successive passes, using a mask (also made of paper) to form the patterns of cells on the surface. For do-it-yourself scientists, the process has to take place in a vacuum chamber.
According to MIT News, “The basic process is essentially the same as the one used to make the silvery lining in your bag of potato chips: a vapor-deposition process that can be carried out inexpensively on a vast commercial scale.”
It’s actually a large team of researchers who have been working on this technology, but I guess Barr’s role in it was deemed important enough to warrant a pretty prestigious prize.