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Controlled electron spin boosts organic solar cells

Posted: 13 Aug 2013 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:organic solar cell? solar panel? energy efficiency?

Cambridge researchers had seen hints of the same kind of behaviour in similar materials that could be used in organic solar cells. "They were seeing some of the same features that we were seeing, features that everyone said you shouldn't be able to see," Schlenker said.

At a scientific meeting in Italy last year, the two groups began discussing the apparent surprising properties of the UW-created polymer, composed of carbon, hydrogen, sulphur and nitrogen atoms. The Cambridge researchers used lasers to probe the polymer and saw clear evidence of the behaviour that had only been hinted at in other materials they had studied.

They found that the apparent lack of electrical dead ends in the new polymer is related to a quantum mechanical property of electrons called "spin." Essentially, with certain spin configurations the material can "rescue" electrical charges from what otherwise would be energy-losing pathways.

Currently, organic solar cells can achieve as much as 12 per cent efficiency in turning light into electricity, compared with 20 to 25 per cent for silicon-based cells. Schlenker believes design concepts based on the new material will help to significantly close the gap between these two types of solar cell.

Organic materials are semi-transparent and tunable to any colour, and their flexibility and ease of production mean that achieving greater efficiency in changing light to electricity could make them cheaper and easier to deploy than the silicon-based cells.

The carbon-based molecules in the organic polymers are similar to molecules already found in car paints, some clothing dye and the pigment in plant chlorophyll. Organic dyes could be incorporated into ink and printed on materials such as shingles, siding or window frames.

Current materials are relatively low cost and recyclable. Work to extend their lifespan beyond five to seven years and to find ways to replace them relatively easily could make them a feasible option for a home or business, Schlenker said.

Solar cells now provide less than 0.2 per cent of power used in the United States, but improving efficiency and finding ways to incorporate them into building materials is one way to make them cost-effective.

"You have to go in the direction of adding no cost to the material you already are planning to deploy," Schlenker said.

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