Department of Defense Funds $53M Solar Program

The last public display from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) program pitted teams from across the country in designing autonomous, remote-controlled vehicles to travel hundreds of miles through the desert. This offered a glimpse toward the future military vehicle applications. Now too, the future of solar energy may be glimpsed through this high-level military research program.

A broad consortium led by the University of Delaware (UD) could receive nearly $53 million in funding — with the bulk of the money coming from DARPA — to pursue the goal of more than doubling the efficiency of terrestrial solar cells within the next 50 months. The University’s Consortium for Very High Efficiency Solar Cells, which consists of 15 universities, corporations and laboratories, could receive up to $33.6 million from DARPA, if all options are awarded, and another $19.3 million from UD and corporate team members. Those corporate members may include DuPont, BP Solar, Corning Inc., LightSpin Technologies and Blue Square Energy. The consortium is being led by Allen Barnett, principal investigator and research professor in UD’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Christiana Honsberg, co-principal investigator and UD associate professor of electrical and computer engineering. The award is the largest in the history of solar energy research, according to Rhone Resch, president of the Washington, DC-based Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA). “I applaud DARPA for recognizing the tremendous potential of solar energy to provide reliable electricity to our troops in the field and to improve our energy security here at home,” Resch said. The DARPA program calls upon the consortium to develop and produce 1,000 Very High Efficiency Solar Cell (VHESC) prototypes that are affordable and that operate at efficiencies of at least 50 percent. Currently, high-end solar cells operate at a peak efficiency of 24.7 percent, and solar cells off the production line operate at 15-20 percent efficiency. The consortium’s goal is to create solar cells that operate at about 54 percent efficiency in the laboratory and 50 percent in production, Barnett said. The VHESC would have immediate application in the high-technology military, which increasingly relies upon a variety of electronics for individual soldiers and the equipment that supports them. As well, it is expected the solar cells will have a large number of commercial applications. “When successfully completed, the Very High Efficiency Solar Cell technology will be a breakthrough in providing portable power to the soldier in the field,” Douglas Kirkpatrick, program manager for DARPA, said. To achieve high efficiency in less than five years at low cost, Barnett and Honsberg have proposed using a new very high performance crystalline silicon solar cell platform and then adding multiple innovations. They had been working on very high efficiency solar cells long before learning of the DARPA program. An important new feature is based on novel approaches to the integration of the optical, interconnect and solar cell design to provide for affordability and also flexibility in the choice of materials and the integration of new technologies as they are developed. “By integrating the optical design with the solar cell design, we have entered previously unoccupied design space that leads to a new paradigm about how to make solar cells and how to use solar cells, and about what they can do,” Barnett said. A key part of the project is not just developing high efficiency solar cells but making the transition from the laboratory to production and the marketplace. Barnett said he believes the consortium will be successful because of the participation of corporations already involved in manufacturing in the field and because several team members, himself included, have experience in bringing high-technology products to market. Barnett was the founder and former president of Astropower, whose assets have since been taken over by General Electric’s new solar division. Honsberg said the scientific research teams will take an interdisciplinary approach, considering developments in a number of areas, including materials engineering, bio-inspired materials and self-assembly at the nanoscale level. “This project requires the consortium to invent, develop and transfer to production this breakthrough solar cell. One rarely gets an opportunity such as that,” Barnett said. “Engineering is the use of science to develop products for the benefit of mankind, and this is a classic case.” In addition to UD and the corporate members, the consortium includes the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the University of Rochester, the Georgia Institute of Technology, Purdue University, the University of California Santa Barbara, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, the University of New South Wales, Yale University and Carnegie Mellon University, all subject to successful negotiation of subcontracts with UD.
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