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Science and Technology

Making solar panels better and cheaper

A solar panel is typically made up of lots of silicon cells that together form a circuit. The electrons zip through the panels to create electricity in a very efficient manner. But what if scientists could create the same efficiency in a different material that was cheaper?

Fei Yu, a University of Cincinnati doctoral student in materials engineering, is studying how to make polymer solar cells more efficient. Right now their performance is well below the most efficient silicon solar panels.

Why polymers:

  • less expensive
  • more flexible
  • lighter weight
  • less fragile

At a March 3, 2014 Denver convention, the American Physical Society Meeting, Yu presented his findings on boosting the power conversion efficiency of polymer solar cells.

To make the plastic solar cells more efficient, Yu is adding a small fraction of graphene nanoflakes. Graphene, a relatively newly discovered material, is a natural form of carbon. Yu explains, "Because graphene is pure carbon, its charge conductivity is very high."

Adding graphene appears to work:

  • efficiency increased threefold
  • helped to transport charges to get a higher photocurrent

Yu's professor, Vikram Kuppa, thinks about the possibilities when their polymer solar cells hit the market. He says, "An ideal scenario would be you replace these sheets on your roof every couple of years because every couple of years you can get increases in efficiencies so all you need to do is remove the old cheap plastic coating, throw it out and just put a new one in."
It's unclear when these polymer solar cells will be commercialized.