The next crop of organic solar cells could be lighter, cheaper, more durable and more efficient thanks to the powerful fuel nitromethane. A team of researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology has discovered that a quick bath in nitromethane provides organic solar cells with increased electrical conductivity and improved stability, too.
Also behind the new breakthrough is funding from the US Navy’s Office of Naval Research, which has been vying with the US Air Force for the title of top in the solar research field.
Two Layers Good, One Layer Better
The new GIT research represents a step up from the use of molybdenum oxide layers as a solar efficiency booster.
Researchers are beginning to deploy various forms of molybdenum in clean tech fields including energy storage and water-splitting.
The problem is that molybdenum oxide is air-sensitive. When used in high-efficiency solar cells, it is applied in layers and requires a high cost vacuum environment.
The GIT researchers found that just a few minutes of “doping” a thin film solar material in nitromethane yields effective results and does away with the need for expensive vacuum-based processing, too:
The diffusion of the dopant molecules into the films during immersion leads to efficient p-type electrical doping over a limited depth of 10 to 20 nanometers from the surface of the film.
Given the quantity and quality of the research field these days, breakthroughs are a dime a dozen. The GIT solution provides a good example. The new technique represents a first for the semi-spontaneous fabrication of single-layer polymer (aka organic or plastic) thin film solar cells, at room temperature no less.
Saving costs on the fabrication end is just part of the achievement. According to Canek Fuentes-Hernandez, a senior researcher on the GIT team, the simplified device enables the use of low-cost conductive materials, too.
Holy Stranded Assets, Batman!
The research team is especially excited about the potential for producing their low-cost solar cells at commercial scale in parts of the world that don’t have the kind of mature manufacturing infrastructure required for vacuum-based processing.
Research team member Felipe Larrain enthuses over the possibilities:
Our goal is to further simplify the fabrication of organic solar cells to the point at which every material required to fabricate them may be included in a single kit that is offered to the public…It could one day enable people to power themselves and be independent of the grid.”
Wait — what? ExxonMobil and other global petroleum giants have been counting on a growing market for diesel fuel in Africa and other parts of the world to stay afloat in an environment of shrinking demand for oil.
Fighting “energy poverty” is the phrase that ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson has deployed to make the case for diesel, but that’s going to be a tough row to hoe moving forward.
The GIT team notes that research into low cost organic PV (photovoltaic) cells has been progressing for a generation, and thin film is closing in on its more expensive silicon cousins for commercial viability.
The next steps include conducting lifecycle and full cost analyses of the solar cells produced through the new method.
If you’d like to check out the full study, you can find it at the journal Nature Materials under the title, “Solution-based electrical doping of semiconducting polymer films over a limited depth.“
The multi-national effort included researchers from the University of California – Santa Barbara, Japan’s Kyushu University, and the Eindhoven University of Technology in The Netherlands.
What Up, Ivanka Trump?
As for why the US Navy would be interested in bringing low cost renewable energy to Africa and elsewhere, CleanTechnica has covered that angle many times over the past few years (too many to link here — just Google it).
The US Department of Defense has identified climate change as a national security threat, and the Navy is on the front lines — literally — when it comes to dealing with rising sea levels, extreme weather events, population displacement, and other impacts of global warming.
The US Navy has been calling out climate change deniers and warning about the dangers of petroleum dependency energetically throughout the Obama Administration.
On the other hand, throughout the 2016 election cycle, President-elect Donald Trump has been promising to revive the US fossil fuel industry at the expense of renewable energy.
If daughter-in-chief Ivanka Trump is serious about promoting effective action on climate change as a matter of US policy, it looks like she’s got her work cut out for her.
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Photo (cropped): by Christopher Moore, Georgia Tech.
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