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Solar panels get a splash of colour

Posted: 09 Jul 2013 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:solar panel? photovoltaics? silicon wafer?

Solar panels with black or bluish-grey colours may soon be dismissed as their default appearance. A team of researchers has found a way to turn solar cells into colourful creations. This could lead to more design options and flexibility when covering building facades.

"Not enough work has been done so far on combining photovoltaics and design elements to really do the term 'customised photovoltaics' justice," said Kevin Fchsel, project manager at the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Optics and Precision Engineering IOF in Jena. The IOF physicist has been focusing for the last four years on nanostructured solar cells suitable for mass production as part of a junior research group funded by Germany's Federal Ministry for Education and Research (BMBF). Together with a Fraunhofer team and scientists from the Friedrich-Schiller University in Jena, the group of optics specialists is looking for cost-effective techniques and manufacturing processes to increase both the efficiency of solar panels and the design flexibility they give architects and designers.

Fchsel is working with his "efficient design" team on the fundamentals of how to make coloured solar cells from paper-thin silicon wafers. These will be particularly suited to designs for decorative fa?ades and domestic roofs. The silicon semiconductor material, just a few micrometers thick, absorbs light and turns it into electricity. To enable lots of light to reach the silicon substrate, the semiconductor layer is given an optically neutral protective barrier (insulator), onto which a hundred-nanometre-thick oxide layer is applied. This transparent conductive oxide (TCO) conducts electricity, and is there primarily to guide as many light particles as possible to the semiconductor layer below. "TCO has a lower refractive index than silicon, so it works as an anti-reflective coating," Fchsel added.

The simple construction of this SIS (semiconductor-insulator-semiconductor) solar cell, with its transparent outer layer, has a further advantage: Not only does it capture more light, it means solar panels can be made in different colours and shapes. "The colour comes from changing the physical thickness of the transparent conductive oxide layer, or modifying its refractive index," Fchsel noted.

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