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September 06, 2013

Research at UAlberta Holds Promise for 'Solar Grafitti'



University of Alberta-Edmonton researchers have discovered that two materials that are abundant in the Earth’s crust—phosphorus and zinc—can be used to produce nanoparticle-based solar cells inexpensively and easily.

The UAlberta discovery is a first step toward the mass manufacturing of solar cells by methods such as roll-to-roll printing (as with newspaper presses) or spray-coating (similar to automotive painting). “Nanoparticle-based ‘inks’ could be used to literally paint or print solar cells or precise compositions,” explained Jillian Buriak, a chemistry professor and senior research officer of the National Institute for Nanotechnology (NINT), which is based on the UAlberta campus.

Both chemical elements could are more plentiful than cadmium, which has been used in solar manufacturing to date, and neither is subject to the manufacturing restrictions imposed on lead-based nanoparticles.


UAlberta researcher Jillian Buriak (center) worked with post-doctoral fellows Erik Luber (right) and Hosnay Mobarok to create nanoparticles that could lead to printable or spray-on solar cells. (Photo courtesy of UAlberta.)

The discovery, several years in the making, represents a major leap forward in making solar power more accessible to parts of the world that are off the traditional electricity grid or face high power costs, such as the Canadian North, “Half the world already lives off the grid, and with demand for electrical power expected to double by the year 2050, it is important that renewable energy sources like solar power are made more affordable by lowering the costs of manufacturing,” Buriak explained.

Buriak collaborated with post-doctoral fellows Erik Luber of the UAlberta Faculty of Engineering and Hosnay Mobarok of the Faculty of Science to create the nanoparticles. The team was able to develop a synthetic method to make zinc phosphide nanoparticles—and to demonstrate that the particles could be dissolved to form an ink and processed to make thin films that are responsive to light.

Buriak and her team are now experimenting with the nanoparticles, spray-coating them onto large solar cells to test their efficiency. The team has applied for a provisional patent and has secured funding to enable the next step to scale up manufacture.

The research, which was supported by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, is published in the latest issue of “ACS (News - Alert) Nano.”

Along with this latest nanoparticle discovery at UAlberta, Buriak is also participating as a member of an international research team working on the development of solar energy technology. The team’s proposal was recently chosen as a finalist in the Global Call for Ideas by the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research. Buriak is working with fellow scientists from Harvard University, the University of Toronto and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam to develop a full research program proposal that will be submitted for consideration by February 2014. The team is focused on a global initiative to develop next-generation solar energy-harvesting science and related technologies.




Edited by Alisen Downey

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