Spokane Journal of Business

Engineers aim to develop more cost-efficient solar panels

Organic materials touted as possible key to creating cheaper photovoltaic cells

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Most Americans want the U.S. to place more emphasis on developing solar power, recent polls suggest, but a major impediment is the cost to manufacture, install, and maintain solar panels.

The price barrier could change, however, as researchers such as Qiaoqiang Gan, University at Buffalo assistant professor of electrical engineering, seek to help develop a new generation of photovoltaic cells that they believe will produce more power and cost less to manufacture than what's available today.

One of the strategies, which Gan is working on, involves the use of plasmonic-enhanced organic photovoltaic materials. These devices don't match traditional solar cells in terms of energy production, but they are less expensive and—because they are made or processed in liquid form—can be applied to more surfaces.

Gan detailed the progress of the research in the May 7 edition of the journal Advanced Materials.

Currently, solar power is produced with either thick polycrystalline silicon wafers or thin-film solar cells made up of inorganic materials such as amorphous silicon or cadmium telluride. Both are expensive to manufacture, Gan says.

His research involves thin-film solar cells, too, but he claims that unlike what's available on the market currently, he is using organic materials such as polymers and small molecules that are carbon-based and less expensive.

"Compared with their inorganic counterparts, organic photovoltaics can be fabricated over large areas on rigid or flexible substrates potentially becoming as inexpensive as paint," Gan says.

The reference to paint doesn't include a price point but rather the idea that photovoltaic cells could one day be applied to surfaces as easily as paint is to walls, he says.

There are drawbacks to organic photovoltaic cells. They have to be thin due to their relatively poor electronic conductive properties. Because they are thin and, thus, without sufficient material to absorb light, it limits their optical absorption and leads to insufficient power conversion efficiency.

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