Researchers Develop Spray-On Solar Cells

EDMONTON, Alberta — Researchers at the University of Alberta are currently working on a project to develop solar cells that can be generated with commonly occurring materials in the Earth’s crust. These cells — based on nanoparticles — would be affordable and easy to produce. Because of the technology behind the developing nanoparticles, manufacturers could reproduce them using a roll-to-roll printing method or a spray-based coating.

This discovery comes after a number of years of development and research. The goal of the project is to make solar power easier to produce and more accessible to regions of the world with limited or no electricity as well as places with high electricity and general power costs, according to Jillian Buriak, chemistry professor and senior research officer at the University of Alberta-based National Institute for Nanotechnology.

The research, supported by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, is based on the properties of phosphorus and zinc, two natural elements that are found in more abundance than other materials and have no manufacturing restrictions associated with them. Buriak’s research team — including Erik Luber, post-doctoral fellow at the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Engineering, and Hosnay Mobarok from the Faculty of Science — focused on developing nanoparticles that can absorb light and conduct electricity with the help of these two elements.

The two manufacturing options available for these particles — roll-to-roll printing similar to that of newspaper presses and spray coating used in vehicle automotive painting — are designed to help create the cells in specific compositions, according to Buriak. Her research team developed the particles by using a synthetic method that creates nanoparticles composed of zinc phosphide. These particles were then capable of dissolving into ink that could then be manufactured into a thin film that reacts to light.

The next step in the team’s research process would be to perform a variety of tests with the newly developed nanoparticles. One of these experiments involves using the spray coating method to adhere them to solar cells in order to test the nanoparticles’ efficiency with sunlight.

Buriak’s team has submitted an application for a provisional patent and is currently working on developing a larger-scale manufacturing system for the nanoparticles with recently secured funding. Those interested in learning more about the team’s research can read about it in the most recent issue of ACS Nano.