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    The DOE Science News Source is a Newswise initiative to promote research news from the Office of Science of the DOE to the public and news media.
    • 2018-08-30 11:05:57
    • Article ID: 699815

    Changing the type of silicon etching drops solar power costs by more than 10 percent

    • Credit: Sarah Bird, Michigan Tech

      Joshua Pearce, professor of material sciences and electrical engineering at Michigan Technological University, has found a way to lower cost of solar power by 10 percent, which could drive investment in the industry.

    • Credit: Chiara Modanese, Aalto University

      Switching the silicon in solar panels, which change the color from blue to black, lower the cost of solar power by more than 10 percent.

    At the end of one of the hottest summers on record, as fights about how to power homes rage, renewable solar energy continues to present an option that does not significantly add greenhouse gases to the environment in exchange for lighting and cooling our homes. And it’s just been given another edge through material science. 

    In a new study published in Energies, researchers have found a way to reduce production costs of solar cells by more than 10 percent.

    “Improving cost per unit power at the cell level can have massive effects downstream,” says Joshua Pearce (https://www.mtu.edu/materials/department/faculty/pearce/), professor of material sciences and electrical engineering at Michigan Tech. Already, he says, costs of solar energy are comparable to conventional forms of electricity and is the fastest growing energy source. This 10 percent drop should push solar to the forefront even faster.

    Switching the Silicon Used in Solar Cells for Renewable Energy Drops Costs

    Silicon is the standard light-capturing material used in solar photovoltaic (PV) cells. It comes in two main forms: perfect crystals that cost more and produce higher efficiencies and multicrystalline silicon that cost less, but offers lower efficiencies. With common etching to reduce reflected light both types still lose some light, which is what gives most solar panels their blue color.

    Researchers already knew that nano-texturing silicon with dry etching makes black silicon (black-Si) that is more efficient at capturing light than standard etching treatments. It has no color because the dry etching process takes a normally flat silicon surface and “etches it into a forest of nanoscale needles,” Pearce says. “Those needles grab the light and don’t let it get away. It’s like looking into the eyes of Darth Vader.”

    Normally such a high surface area with many surface defects would hurt electrical performance, but researchers at Aalto University found that when the silicon is also treated with an appropriate atomic layer deposition (ALD) coating, the effects of surface defects are mitigated.

    Typical thinking has been that the cost of black-Si cells from dry etching and ALD are too expensive for practical use, especially in an industry where, Pearce says, “margins are extremely tight. Everyone’s trying to push costs as low as possible.”

    However, the results of their study shocked even Pearce. While researchers did find that production of individual black-Si passive emitter rear cells (PERC) were between 15.8 and 25.1 percent more expensive than making conventional cells, they also found that the efficiency gains and the ability to go to the less-expensive multicrystalline silicon starting material far outweighed those extra costs: overall the cost per unit power dropped by 10.8 percent.

    The Future of Renewables and Solar Energy Production through Material Science

    Black is not only better than blue when it comes to solar panels. The improvements could start to beat out renewables' top energy competitor in the climate change arena.

    “For the people that think coal technology is going to be able to compete with solar, they should know solar costs are still coming down. Most coal companies are already, or near, bankrupt now," Pearce says. "There’s no way coal’s going to be able to compete with solar in the future.” 

    He adds, "This study points to where the future is going to go in PV manufacturing," he says, "and what countries might want to do to give themselves a competitive advantage."

    Teaming Up Across the Atlantic for Solar Energy Efficiency

    Pearce completed this study while on sabbatical as a Fulbright distinguished chair at Aalto University (http://www.aalto.fi/en/) in Finland. He worked with the Hele Savin’s Electron Physics Group and had access to their data on these processes. Researchers were also able to get information on manufacturing costs from companies, which is not public, but were allowed to use for this study, along with published literature on solar cells.

    While the spot price for solar cells may change day by day – or even by hour – the results still hold. “That’s 10 percent decline between cell types from whatever the number is that day,” he says. This is because the comparisons were made on relative costs, not absolute costs. That’s also why arbitrarily fluctuating tariffs were not factored into the calculations.

    What’s Next for Solar Energy and Renewables

    Pearce says that while the production process can still be optimized to pull out a few more percentage points of efficiency, the next step for this study is to be used by policy makers to accelerate PV manufacturing. For a country like China, which already dominates global PV manufacturing, “to make this relatively small change is pretty trivial.” The European Union, which currently makes a lot of the manufacturing equipment, should also “look carefully at scaling up deep reactive ion etching and ALD tools to meet the needs of the rapidly expanding PV market”. He hopes that countries like the U.S., which used to dominate the solar field, will use this data at a policy level to leap frog international manufacturers, and invest in producing the new machines to manufacture these types of solar cells. 

    “I don’t know which technology will end up being the one to dominate the solar field,” he said, however “The study shows the clear economic impetus to move in the direction of dry-etched black silicon PERC that wasn’t there before.”

    This study was conducted with Chiara Modanese, Hannu Laine, Toni Pasanen and Hele Savin from Aalto University in Finland.

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    Exploring Blended Materials Along Compositional Gradients

    Exploring Blended Materials Along Compositional Gradients

    A new platform could accelerate the development of blended materials with desired properties.

    New Material Designed by Berkeley Lab 'Mines' Copper from Toxic Wastewater

    New Material Designed by Berkeley Lab 'Mines' Copper from Toxic Wastewater

    A research team led by Berkeley Lab has designed a new material - called ZIOS (zinc imidazole salicylaldoxime) - that extracts copper ions from mine wastewater with unprecedented precision and speed.

    Collaborative AI effort unraveling SARS-CoV-2 mysteries wins prestigious Gordon Bell Special Prize

    Collaborative AI effort unraveling SARS-CoV-2 mysteries wins prestigious Gordon Bell Special Prize

    Using a combination of AI and supercomputing resources, Argonne researchers are examining the dynamics of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein to determine how it fuses with the human host cell, advancing the search for drug treatments.

    Flame on! How AI may tame a complex materials technique and transform manufacturing

    Flame on! How AI may tame a complex materials technique and transform manufacturing

    Creating nanomaterials with flame spray pyrolysis is complex, but scientists at Argonne have discovered how applying artificial intelligence can lead to an easier process and better performance.

    X-Ray Study Explores Potential of Hepatitis C Drugs to Treat COVID-19

    X-Ray Study Explores Potential of Hepatitis C Drugs to Treat COVID-19

    Researchers at the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory investigated the binding properties of several hepatitis C drugs to determine how well they inhibit the SARS-CoV-2 main protease, a crucial protein enzyme that enables the novel coronavirus to reproduce. Inhibiting, or blocking, the protease from functioning is vital to stopping the virus from spreading in patients with COVID-19.

    Argonne researchers develop machine-learning optimizer to slash product design costs

    Argonne researchers develop machine-learning optimizer to slash product design costs

    Argonne's new AI technique may fast track the design and simulation of engines and all types of other products.

    Science Snapshots from Berkeley Lab

    Science Snapshots from Berkeley Lab

    Advanced X-ray techniques yield insights into a bacterial enzyme that turns methane gas into liquid fuel, and a genome resource expands known diversity of bacteria and archaea by 44%

    Advancing the arrival of fusion energy through improved understanding of fast plasma particles

    Advancing the arrival of fusion energy through improved understanding of fast plasma particles

    PPPL scientists have developed a unique program to track the zig-zagging dance of hot, charged plasma particles that fuel fusion reactions.

    Building a better traffic forecasting model

    Building a better traffic forecasting model

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    Charges Cascading Along a Molecular Chain

    Charges Cascading Along a Molecular Chain

    Removing one charged molecule from a one-dimensional array causes the others to alternately turn 'on' or 'off,' paving the way for information transfer in tiny circuits


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    JSA Announces 10 New Graduate Fellows

    JSA Announces 10 New Graduate Fellows

    Jefferson Science Associates has announced the award of ten graduate fellowships to doctoral students for the 2020-2021 academic year. The fellowships will support students' advanced studies at their universities and research at the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility, a U.S. Department of Energy nuclear physics research laboratory managed and operated by JSA.

    PPPL awarded total of $4 million to simplify design and construction of stellarator fusion energy facilities

    PPPL awarded total of $4 million to simplify design and construction of stellarator fusion energy facilities

    Design and construction of start of unique permanent magnet stellarator funded to begin.

    $2.5 million DOE grant to help MSU researchers measure benefits of growing trees for biofuel

    $2.5 million DOE grant to help MSU researchers measure benefits of growing trees for biofuel

    A $2.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy will benefit Mississippi State researchers in the university's Forest and Wildlife Research Center studying the economic and ecological benefits of growing trees for biofuel production.

    8 Berkeley Lab Scientists Named 2020 AAAS Fellows

    8 Berkeley Lab Scientists Named 2020 AAAS Fellows

    The American Association for the Advancement of Science, the world's largest general scientific society, today announced that 489 of its members, among them eight scientists at Berkeley Lab, have been named Fellows. This lifetime honor, which follows a nomination and review process, recognizes scientists, engineers, and innovators for their distinguished achievements in research and other disciplines toward the advancement or applications of science.

    Argonne team collects Best Paper Award at SC20

    Argonne team collects Best Paper Award at SC20

    The research described in the winning paper is focused on using a high-performance, iterative reconstruction system for noninvasive imaging at synchrotron facilities.

    Utah State University's Seth Manesse wins first individual CyberForce Competition(tm)

    Utah State University's Seth Manesse wins first individual CyberForce Competition(tm)

    After a tough, day-long contest, Seth Manesse from Utah State University won the sixth CyberForce Competition.

    Quantum X-ray Microscope Underway at Brookhaven Lab

    Quantum X-ray Microscope Underway at Brookhaven Lab

    UPTON, NY--Scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory have begun building a quantum-enhanced x-ray microscope at the National Synchrotron Light Source II (NSLS-II). This groundbreaking microscope, supported by the Biological and Environmental Research progam at DOE's Office of Science, will enable researchers to image biomolecules like never before.

    Accelerator Makes Cross-Country Trek to Enable Laser Upgrade

    Accelerator Makes Cross-Country Trek to Enable Laser Upgrade

    Today, the U.S. Department of Energy's Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility has shipped the final new section of accelerator that it has built for an upgrade of the Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS). The section of accelerator, called a cryomodule, has begun a cross-country road trip to DOE's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, where it will be installed in LCLS-II, the world's brightest X-ray laser.

    Scientist who developed quantum computing code wins ORNL's top science award

    Scientist who developed quantum computing code wins ORNL's top science award

    ORNL's Paul Kent, Dr. Bart Iddins and two teams were recognized for leadership and accomplishment in science, technology and mission support.

    Like a leaf - new ways to capture carbon from the air

    Like a leaf - new ways to capture carbon from the air

    Argonne National Laboratory and SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory will receive $4.5 million over three years for research aimed at capturing carbon dioxide directly from air and converting it to useful products by artificial photosynthesis.


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    Harvesting Energy from Light using Bio-inspired Artificial Cells

    Harvesting Energy from Light using Bio-inspired Artificial Cells

    Scientists designed and connected two different artificial cells to each other to produce molecules called ATP (adenosine triphosphate).

    Engineering Living Scaffolds for Building Materials

    Engineering Living Scaffolds for Building Materials

    Bone and mollusk shells are composite systems that combine living cells and inorganic components. This allows them to regenerate and change structure while also being very strong and durable. Borrowing from this amazing complexity, researchers have been exploring a new class of materials called engineered living materials (ELMs).

    Excavating Quantum Information Buried in Noise

    Excavating Quantum Information Buried in Noise

    Researchers developed two new methods to assess and remove error in how scientists measure quantum systems. By reducing quantum "noise" - uncertainty inherent to quantum processes - these new methods improve accuracy and precision.

    How Electrons Move in a Catastrophe

    How Electrons Move in a Catastrophe

    Lanthanum strontium manganite (LSMO) is a widely applicable material, from magnetic tunnel junctions to solid oxide fuel cells. However, when it gets thin, its behavior changes for the worse. The reason why was not known. Now, using two theoretical methods, a team determined what happens.

    When Ions and Molecules Cluster

    When Ions and Molecules Cluster

    How an ion behaves when isolated within an analytical instrument can differ from how it behaves in the environment. Now, Xue-Bin Wang at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory devised a way to bring ions and molecules together in clusters to better discover their properties and predict their behavior.

    Tune in to Tetrahedral Superstructures

    Tune in to Tetrahedral Superstructures

    Shape affects how the particles fit together and, in turn, the resulting material. For the first time, a team observed the self-assembly of nanoparticles with tetrahedral shapes.

    Tracing Interstellar Dust Back to the Solar System's Formation

    Tracing Interstellar Dust Back to the Solar System's Formation

    This study is the first to confirm dust particles pre-dating the formation of our solar system. Further study of these materials will enable a deeper understanding of the processes that formed and have since altered them.

    Investigating Materials that Can Go the Distance in Fusion Reactors

    Investigating Materials that Can Go the Distance in Fusion Reactors

    Future fusion reactors will require materials that can withstand extreme operating conditions, including being bombarded by high-energy neutrons at high temperatures. Scientists recently irradiated titanium diboride (TiB2) in the High Flux Isotope Reactor (HFIR) to better understand the effects of fusion neutrons on performance.

    Better 3-D Imaging of Tumors in the Breast with Less Radiation

    Better 3-D Imaging of Tumors in the Breast with Less Radiation

    In breast cancer screening, an imaging technique based on nuclear medicine is currently being used as a successful secondary screening tool alongside mammography to improve the accuracy of the diagnosis. Now, a team is hoping to improve this imaging technique.

    Microbes are Metabolic Specialists

    Microbes are Metabolic Specialists

    Scientists can use genetic information to measure if microbes in the environment can perform specific ecological roles. Researchers recently analyzed the genomes of over 6,000 microbial species.


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