Sandia National Lab To Make Near-Invisible Glitter-Sized Solar Cells

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Sandia National Laboratories researchers are planning to make solar cells of near-invisible dimensions. In collaboration with other partners they are applying commercially available manufacturing techniques to the solar cells and studying how to better produce them, including some techniques that can make them as small as two microns thick, which is about 3 percent the diameter of a human hair.

Sandia National Laboratories will begin researching how to use glitter-sized photovoltaic cells in utility-scale solar power systems, which eventually could cut the costs of solar panels in half and nearly double their efficiency.

glitter-sized solar cells from Sandia National
Greg Nielson holding samples containing arrays of microsolar cells. Image credit: Sandia

The tiny cells could turn a person into a walking solar battery charger if they were fastened to flexible substrates molded around unusual shapes, such as clothing.

According to a Sandia press release, in October, Sandia will begin applying the glittery solar cells to large-scale solar power systems and building a prototype 1-foot-by-1-foot Microsystems-Enabled Photovoltaic  (MEPV) demonstration module, said Greg Nielson, team leader on the MEPV project.

“As the cells have matured and gotten to the point where we’re getting good, consistent performance, we’re ready to jump into making systems,” he said. “We’ve got these cells; now what are we going to do with them?”

The new MEPV solar power systems based on single-junction cells are estimated to be up to 20 percent efficient, meaning they capture a fifth of the sun’s energy, and could cost $1.80 per watt-peak, a way of rating a photovoltaic system that measures how many watts a panel produces when sunlight is at its peak, Nielson said. The preliminary cost estimate includes an 18 percent profit margin and the costs of manufacturing, labor, permits and racking and wiring for installation.

Today, the low-end cost of installing a traditional utility-scale solar system is about $4 per watt-peak, Nielson said.

While preliminary cost estimates for the single-junction MEPV system are competitive with what consumers pay for electricity from the grid now, Nielson hopes the cost can be cut and the efficiency increased even further with innovations that take advantage of technologies developed in the last 10-15 years.

Those being studied include: moving from single- to multi-junction cells to increase system efficiency up to a goal of 40 percent by utilizing different wavelengths of light; concentrating sunlight to decrease the amount of solar-cell area needed to produce the same amount of energy; better managing the cells’ thermal output; placing the cells in a series to increase the module’s voltage; placing the inverter directly into the module to reduce installation costs; and decreasing how precise the sun-tracking hardware needs to be to capture the sun’s energy, thus decreasing the cost of the modules’ tracking hardware, Nielson said.

“The reason we believe we can get the prices down is we’re taking a completely different approach to the photovoltaic systems and that’s based on the MEPV cells. It’s a direction thatthe industry has not taken at all,” he said.

Nielson said a prototype MEPV solar power system could be built in about two years, but modules for utilities or individual buildings will likely take at least seven years to reach commercial markets, due to rigorous reliability and safety testing requirements. However, consumers could have access to flexible MEPV power devices built into tents, clothing or electrical gadgets, in a few years, he said.

The companies that have taken on the challenging manufacturing and research projects, have “been a big help in advancing certain aspects of the technology, while the more advanced technology of the photovoltaic cells Sandia has done,” Nielson said.

This article is based on a press release from Sandia National Laboratories

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