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Laser Technology Can Cut Solar Cell Costs, Raise Efficiency

Solar roof shingles (NREL)

Thin-film solar cells can be fashioned into roof-top tiles or shingles. (National Renewable Energy Laboratory)

Researchers at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana are developing a manufacturing technology based on fast, pulsing lasers that aims to make solar cells more affordable and efficient. The technology creates small microchannels needed to connect solar panels into an array that generates usable amounts of power.

Yung Shin, engineering professor and director of Purdue’s Center for Laser-Based Manufacturing, says the creation of these microchannels — using a process called scribing —  can address two obstacles that hinder widespread adoption of solar cells: the need to reduce manufacturing costs and increase the efficiency of converting sunlight into an electric current, said

Conventional scribing methods, says Shin, create the channels mechanically with a stylus, but they are slow and expensive and produce imperfect channels, which impede solar cells’ performance. The researchers hope to increase the efficiency of solar cell production, while cutting costs, using an “ultrashort pulse laser” to create the microchannels in thin-film solar cells.

“Production costs of solar cells have been greatly reduced by making them out of thin films instead of wafers, but it is difficult to create high-quality microchannels in these thin films,” Shin says. “Although laser scribing has been studied extensively,” adds Shin, “until now we haven’t been able to precisely control lasers to accurately create the microchannels to the exacting specifications required.”

Research results have shown that the fast-pulsing laser accurately formed microchannels with precise depths and sharp boundaries. The laser pulses last only a matter of picoseconds, or quadrillionths of a second. Because the pulses are so fleeting the laser does not cause heat damage to the thin film, removing material in precise patterns in a process called “cold ablation.”

Emerging thin-film solar cells are flexible, allowing them to be used as rooftop shingles and tiles, building facades, or the glazing for skylights. Thin-film solar cells account for about 20 percent of the photovoltaic market globally in terms of watts generated and are expected to account for 31 percent by 2013.

The work is funded with a three-year, $425,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. A research paper demonstrating the feasibility of the technique was published in proceedings of the 2011 NSF Engineering Research and Innovation Conference in January 2011.

Read more. Report: Nanotech Can Cut Green Energy Costs

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