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  • 2009-11-01 16:20:00
  • Article ID: 558144

Nanostructures on Optical Fiber Make "Hidden" PV Cells

  • Credit: Georgia Tech Photo: Gary Meek

    Georgia Tech researchers Yaguang Wei, Zhong Lin Wang and Benjamin Weintraub (left-right) examine a prototype of their three-dimensional solar cell based on optical fiber.

  • Credit: Georgia Tech Photo: Gary Meek

    Close-up shows the brown light-absorbing material for the three-dimensional solar cell grown on optical fiber by researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

  • Credit: Georgia Tech Photo: Gary Meek

    Georgia Tech Regents professor Zhong Lin Wang holds a prototype three-dimensional solar cell that could allow PV systems to be located away from rooftops.

  • Credit: Georgia Tech Photo: Gary Meek

    Georgia Tech Regents professor Zhong Lin Wang holds a prototype three-dimensional solar cell that could allow PV systems to be located away from rooftops.

  • Credit: Georgia Tech Photo: Gary Meek

    Yaguang Wei (standing), Zhong Lin Wang and Benjamin Weintraub (left-right, seated) display a prototype of their three-dimensional solar cell based on optical fiber.

Converting sunlight to electricity might no longer mean large panels of photovoltaic cells atop flat surfaces like roofs.

Using zinc oxide nanostructures grown on optical fibers and coated with dye-sensitized solar cell materials, researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have developed a new type of three-dimensional photovoltaic system. The approach could allow PV systems to be hidden from view and located away from traditional locations such as rooftops.

“Using this technology, we can make photovoltaic generators that are foldable, concealed and mobile,” said Zhong Lin Wang, a Regents professor in the Georgia Tech School of Materials Science and Engineering. “Optical fiber could conduct sunlight into a building’s walls where the nanostructures would convert it to electricity. This is truly a three dimensional solar cell.”

Details of the research were published in the early view of the journal Angewandte Chemie International on October 22. The work was sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the KAUST Global Research Partnership and the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Dye-sensitized solar cells use a photochemical system to generate electricity. They are inexpensive to manufacture, flexible and mechanically robust, but their tradeoff for lower cost is conversion efficiency lower than that of silicon-based cells. But using nanostructure arrays to increase the surface area available to convert light could help reduce the efficiency disadvantage, while giving architects and designers new options for incorporating PV into buildings, vehicles and even military equipment.

Fabrication of the new Georgia Tech PV system begins with optical fiber of the type used by the telecommunications industry to transport data. First, the researchers remove the cladding layer, then apply a conductive coating to the surface of the fiber before seeding the surface with zinc oxide. Next, they use established solution-based techniques to grow aligned zinc oxide nanowires around the fiber much like the bristles of a bottle brush. The nanowires are then coated with the dye-sensitized materials that convert light to electricity.

Sunlight entering the optical fiber passes into the nanowires, where it interacts with the dye molecules to produce electrical current. A liquid electrolyte between the nanowires collects the electrical charges. The result is a hybrid nanowire/optical fiber system that can be up to six times as efficient as planar zinc oxide cells with the same surface area.

“In each reflection within the fiber, the light has the opportunity to interact with the nanostructures that are coated with the dye molecules,” Wang explained. “You have multiple light reflections within the fiber, and multiple reflections within the nanostructures. These interactions increase the likelihood that the light will interact with the dye molecules, and that increases the efficiency.”

Wang and his research team have reached an efficiency of 3.3 percent and hope to reach 7 to 8 percent after surface modification. While lower than silicon solar cells, this efficiency would be useful for practical energy harvesting. If they can do that, the potentially lower cost of their approach could make it attractive for many applications.

By providing a larger area for gathering light, the technique would maximize the amount of energy produced from strong sunlight, as well as generate respectable power levels even in weak light. The amount of light entering the optical fiber could be increased by using lenses to focus the incoming light, and the fiber-based solar cell has a very high saturation intensity, Wang said.

Wang believes this new structure will offer architects and product designers an alternative PV format for incorporating into other applications.

“This will really provide some new options for photovoltaic systems,” Wang said. “We could eliminate the aesthetic issues of PV arrays on building. We can also envision PV systems for providing energy to parked vehicles, and for charging mobile military equipment where traditional arrays aren’t practical or you wouldn’t want to use them.”

Wang and his research team, which includes Benjamin Weintraub and Yaguang Wei, have produced generators on optical fiber up to 20 centimeters in length. “The longer the better,” said Wang, “because longer the light can travel along the fiber, the more bounces it will make and more it will be absorbed.”

Traditional quartz optical fiber has been used so far, but Wang would like to use less expensive polymer fiber to reduce the cost. He is also considering other improvements, such as a better method for collecting the charges and a titanium oxide surface coating that could further boost efficiency.

Though it could be used for large PV systems, Wang doesn’t expect his solar cells to replace silicon devices any time soon. But he does believe they will broaden the potential applications for photovoltaic energy.

“This is a different way to gather power from the sun,” Wang said. “To meet our energy needs, we need all the approaches we can get.”

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Media Relations Assistance: John Toon (404-894-6986); E-mail: (jtoon@gatech.edu) or Abby Vogel (404-385-3364); E-mail: (avogel@gatech.edu).

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Cold and Bubbly: The Sensory Qualities that Best Quench Thirst

New research from the Monell Center finds that oral perceptions of coldness and carbonation help to reduce thirst. The findings could guide sensory approaches to increase fluid intake in populations at risk for dehydration, including the elderly, soldiers, and athletes.

J.R. Macdonald Lab receives nearly $8 million DOE grant renewal

MANHATTAN -- A nearly $8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy is supporting the "bread and butter" physics research at Kansas State University's James R. Macdonald Laboratory. The grant is a three-year renewal award, "Structure and Dynamics of Atoms, Ions, Molecules and Surfaces." "This big operational grant is our bread-and-butter," said Itzik Ben-Itzhak, university distinguished professor of physics and director of the J.

University contributes art to the new downtown arena

A number of Sac State artworks are joining Jeff Koons' "Coloring Book" in exhibits at the new Golden 1 Center. (Sacramento State/Rob Neep) More photosSac State Professor Rachel Clarke and alumnus Bryan Valenzuela check out the installation of Valenzuela's "Multitudes Converge" glass sculpture at the Golden 1 Center.

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New Method for Reporting Solar Data

A straightforward new way to calculate, compile, and graphically present solar radiation measurements in a format that is accessible to decision makers and the general public has been developed by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin and is described in the Journal of Renewable and Sustainable Energy.

Trapped Sunlight Cleans Water

High energy costs are one drawback of making clean water from waste effluents. According to an article in the journal Biomicrofluidics, a new system that combines two different technologies proposes to break down contaminants using the cheapest possible energy source, sunlight.

Report: Policies to Spur Renewable Energy Can Lower Energy Costs

The South could pay less for its electricity in 20 years than is currently projected if strong public policies are enacted to spur renewable energy production and use, according to a report released today by researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology and Duke University.


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Citi Grant Helps University Students Succeed

Citi Community Development, part of the Citi family of businesses, supports an innovative Academic Success Program at South Dakota State University. The program is designed to help students who have been re-admitted to SDSU following suspension due to low academic achievement.

Iowa State Engineer and Goodrich Partner to Develop Fuel Nozzles

Hui Hu, an Iowa State University associate professor of aerospace engineering, is working with engineers from the Goodrich Corp. to test and characterize the next generation of fuel nozzles.

CSB to Hold Public Hearing Tomorrow, December 15, as Part of the CSB Deepwater Horizon Investigation

CSB Board Will Hear Testimony on how Offshore Drilling is Managed and Regulated in Other Countries

Cornell Joins Team Taking Head-first Plunge Into Algae Biofuels

Cornell University researchers have joined other scientists and a biofuel research company on a mission to develop a commercial-scale algae-to-fuel facility by 2015. The effort is backed by a $9 million award from the U.S. Department of Energy.

Engineering Researchers Partner With Toyota; DOE Grant Will Further Work Toward a More Efficient Charger for Hybrid-Electric Vehicles

A $3.9 million award from the U.S. Department of Energy will allow electrical engineering researchers at the University of Arkansas to continue contributing to the development of a compact and highly efficient silicon-carbide charger for hybrid electric vehicles. The benefits of the project extend beyond vehicles into other areas, such as wind and solar power, and could lead to reduced energy consumption in the United States.

Research Looks at Alternative Power for Military

South Dakota State University has a major role in a $10 million project to deliver alternative power technologies to help the U.S. military supply power to units in the field. The three-year project began in May 2009.

Mixing Blood and Oil: Conference Tackles Similar Challenges from Two Major Industries

Scientists and engineers from two of the nation's largest industries - medicine and energy - came together this week to explore the synergies in moving oil and pumping blood.

Time Ripe to Move Energy Storage Idea Off Drawing Board

Need has caught up with Case Western Reserve University researcher Gerhard Welsch's design for a self-healing, high-energy capacitor he patented a decade ago. ARPA-E has granted Welsch $2.25 million to start producing the small and lightweight device for hybrid and electric cars and more.

Registration Open for Sandia-Sponsored 4th International Conference on Integration of Renewable and Distributed Energy Resources

Registration is open for the 4th International Conference on the Integration of Renewable and Distributed Energy Resources, the premier event for technical discussion of electric integration of new energy resources.

Advanced Energy Conference To Illuminate Latest Technologies For 21st Century Clean Energy Economy

Leading Energy Organizations to Highlight Latest Job-Producing Energy Technologies at Nov. 8-9 Conference in N.Y.C.


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