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Students of modern solar energy technology need to be aware that the science is constantly changing ( for the better). Scientist and engineers ( great career path by the way) are constantly challenging the status quo when it comes to what is possible with solar technology.
Materials engineering advancements are making it possible to generate electricity from the sun in ways that were never possible before today. Nanotechnology is opening new doors to such materials. One of these is the concept of windows that not only pass light but also generate electricity.
Buildings of the future.
New buildings may come equipped with windows that can generate their own electricity, thanks to a finding of a team led by Jacqui Cole, a materials scientist from the University of Cambridge, UK, currently based at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory.
For the first time, Cole and colleagues determined the molecular structure of working solar cell electrodes within a fully assembled device that works like a window.
Latest Solar Power Advances.
The finding, published in Nanoscale, helps advance smart window technology that could enable cities to move closer to the goal of being energy sustainable.
“We just need a modest boost in performance to make these solar cells competitive.” – Jacqui Cole, 1851 Royal Commission 2014 Design Fellow, based at Argonne.
The experiments were performed on dye-sensitized solar cells, which are transparent and thus well-suited for use in glass. Attempts to create smart window technologies have been limited by the many unknown molecular mechanisms between the electrodes and electrolyte that combine to determine how the device operates.
“Most previous studies have modeled the molecular function of these working electrodes without considering the electrolyte ingredients,” Cole said.
Our work shows that these chemical ingredients can clearly influence the performance of solar cells, so we can now use this knowledge to tune the ions to increase solar photovoltaic efficiency.
To make the discovery, Cole (the 1851 Royal Commission 2014 Design Fellow) and her colleagues used neutron reflectometry to probe the function and interplay of the electrolyte ingredients with electrodes of the dye-sensitized solar cells. Neutron reflectometry, similar to X-ray reflectometry techniques, allows scientists to measure the structure of thin films with high resolution. But it was the fact that the tests were performed in a window-like system that made for a significant discovery.
“Prior research considered the working electrodes outside the device, so there has been no path to determine how the different device components interact,” Cole said.
Our work signifies a huge leap forward as it’s the world’s first example of applying in situ neutron reflectometry to dye-sensitized solar cells.
Previous efforts to characterize the dye/titanium dioxide interface in these solar cells have been limited to determining this interfacial structure within an environment exposed to air or in a solvent medium. Because of these constraints, these solar cell environments are essentially artificial with limited relevance for window applications.
Jacqui Cole, a materials scientist from the University of Cambridge, based at Argonne, led the research team that discovered a way to potentially enhance the efficiency of solar cells.
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With this discovery, however, Cole and colleagues have moved beyond artificial constraints. In doing so, they can better understand how a thin-film electrode containing titanium dioxide, a naturally occurring compound found in paint, sunscreen and food coloring, can have a huge impact on solar cell efficiency.
Our work has shown that certain chemical ingredients, some of which have so far been overlooked, can clearly influence the photovoltaic performance of these solar cells.
More efficient solar cells like these can move smart window technology closer to the marketplace, said Cole, adding that the science is almost there.
We just need a modest boost in performance to make these solar cells competitive, since price-to-performance governs the economics of the solar cell industry. And manufacturing dye-sensitized solar cells is very cheap relative to other solar cell technologies.
Performance-wise, the cells recently broke a world record with a power conversion efficiency of 14.3 percent using a dye-sensitized electrode featuring two co-sensitized metal-free organic dyes. These dyes “promise cheaper, more environmentally friendly synthetic routes and greater molecular design flexibility than their metal-containing counterparts,” according to the paper.
The discovery was made with colleagues from the University of Cambridge, United Kingdom, the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organization and the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, UK. Researchers are continuing to apply this materials characterization technique to dye-sensitized solar cells, which could reveal further molecular secrets and lead the way to future energy applications.
Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation’s first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America’s scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.
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