Wednesday, December 10th, 2008

New Polymer Improves Efficiency, Expands Application of Solar Cells

Plastics are a key ingredient for being able to harness the power of renewable energy resources. In windmills, for example, plastics are used for wind turbine covers and fiber-reinforced plastics are the material of choice for the rotor blades.  When it comes to solar power, traditional silicon-based solar cells are expensive and difficult to handle.  Plastic (polymer) solar cells are more cost-effective, but their low efficiency has somewhat limited their practical application. But now a new type of plastic solar cell may offer an efficiency-boosting solution.

A new polymer designed and synthesized by a team of researchers at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science may one day lead to a future where consumers purchase solar cells from a neighborhood store, cover their car with them and drive away using the power they supply.  Reporting in the November 26 edition of the Journal of the American Chemical Society, Yang Yang, a professor of materials science and engineering and his colleagues state that the new polymer has significantly greater sunlight absorption and conversion capabilities than previous polymers.

According to a UCLA news release, the researchers discovered that replacing a carbon atom with a silicon atom in the polymer markedly improved the material's photovoltaic properties. This silole-containing polymer can also be crystalline, giving it great potential as an ingredient for high-efficiency solar cells. The UCLA team has shown that the photovoltaic material they use on their solar cells is one of the most efficient based on a single-layer, low-band-gap polymer. According to the study, at a lower band gap, the polymer solar cell can absorb more sunlight. At a higher band gap, light is not easily absorbed and can be wasted.

“We hope that solar cells will one day be as thin as paper and can be attached to the surface of your choice,” said co-author Hsiang-Yu Chen, a UCLA graduate student. “We'll also be able to create different colors to match different applications.”

Commercialization potential? Solarmer Energy Inc., which provided funding for the study, recently licensed the technology.

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