Iowa State Advances Thin Film Solar Technology

With solar cell manufacturers around the globe scrambling to find a solution to the silicon shortage, Iowa State researchers are hoping their recent discoveries in materials science and plasma chemistry will boost the performance of thin film solar cells by 40 to 50 percent.

Vikram Dalal, the director of Iowa State’s Microelectronics Research Center and the Thomas M. Whitney Professor in electrical and computer engineering, said he has found a way to improve hydrogen bonding to the silicon in thin film solar cells. The new technology could improve the efficiency of the cells by about 35 percent and eliminate approximately 15 percent of the drop in performance, he said. Non-crystalline silicon wafers that are about 2 micrometers thick can replace crystalline wafers that are about 300 micrometers thick. The result is thin solar cells that absorb lots of light and can be mounted on flexible plastic and other materials. But theses cells produce only about half the electricity as crystalline silicon and their performance drops over time. “That’s where we come in,” said Dalal, who is working to improve the performance and stability of solar cells at the Iowa-based company, PowerFilm Inc., an Ames company that manufactures thin, flexible solar panels. Frank Jeffrey, the chief executive officer of PowerFilm, said he’d be happy to see the performance of his company’s solar cells jump by even 20 percent. The new techniques would work with essentially the same manufacturing processes and equipment now used by PowerFilm. “It would put us in a much stronger competitive position,” said Jeffrey. “If we can increase performance and keep costs in line, that would give us a significant advantage over other people pursuing thin film solar technology right now.” But he acknowledged Dalal’s project won’t be an easy one. “It is a significant challenge to get the advancement he’d like to make,” noted Jeffrey. Dalal, who has spent more than three decades finding ways for that sunlight to generate more and more electricity, is looking forward to facing those challenges in his laboratory. “This is both challenging and interesting work,” said Dalal, who started studying solar technology in 1972 when he decided he didn’t want to develop smart bomb technology for a defense contractor. “I find it is tremendously interesting, even after 34 years. And it helps humanity instead of killing it, which allows me to sleep at night.” The project is partially supported by a $63,406 grant from the Grow Iowa Values Fund, a state economic development program. Dalal also has a three-year, $220,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to support a separate but similar research project. According to Dalal, the discoveries are expected to result in several patents. Article courtesy of Iowa State University
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