When Materials Science Meets the Sun and Solar Cells Meet the Future

ELN, Energy, Materials Studio

solar cells and materials science
Improvements in solar cells and their related technologies will propel us into the next generation of energy use.
Image source: Flickr user Thomas Kohler

Humans consume vast amounts of energy. In 2011, expenditures on energy reached over six trillion dollars, while certain regions of the world (i.e. China, India, Africa) saw dramatic increases in energy use from 1990 to 2008.1 Though most of our energy still comes from oil, gas and coal, issues of sustainability and global warming are becoming mainstream and more individuals hope to harvest the power of renewable sources, such as solar energy. According to the U.S National Academy of Science, “Solar radiation reaches Earth with more than enough energy in a single square meter to illuminate five 60-watt light bulbs if all the sunlight could be captured and converted to electricity.”2 Though solar energy is indirectly used to create fossil fuels and wind power, our direct use of solar energy could contribute so much more to sustaining humanity’s hunger for energy.

Directly Harnessing the Sun’s Power with the Help of Materials Science

When you imagine “solar energy,” perhaps images of solar cells come to mind. Indeed, solar cells, or photovoltaic systems, exploit the fact that certain materials kick elections into motion when light strikes their surfaces, thus creating a current. This current produces electricity which can then be used to power a variety of devices.3 Indeed, solar cells are the basic unit of solar panels. Today, “[t]he success of photovoltaics as a renewable energy technology arguably rests on…the efficiency of conversion of solar energy into electricity and the cost per watt of produced power.”4 How can we then increase both the efficiency of conversion and decrease costs?

One popular solution is the creation of quantum dot solar cells, an attempt to replace popularly used bulk materials such as silicon. Other reports have also described novel materials, such as perovskite semiconductors5 or gallium-arsenide wafers capable of transforming both the sun’s light and wasted heat into energy.6 Regardless of the exact materials used, fast-tracking the development of next generation solar cells will require an investment in materials science.

But to really find the cheapest materials capable of converting light (and perhaps heat) the fastest, researchers should rely on modeling and simulation software in order to use principles of materials science to predict a material’s properties and behavior. The use of prediction software is a powerful way to imbue companies looking to develop next generation solar cells with the confidence and skills needed to develop more innovative and cheaper solar cells. Here are other ways in which prediction software can enable companies that create solar cells to stay ahead of their competition:

  • Cost reduction: Simulation software allows researchers to run experiments a number of times to determine how a new material will interact with the entire unit. In the case of solar cells, a variety of components such as crystal defects or a material’s optical properties or microstructure, can influence the amount of energy absorbed and the costs of producing the material. Instead of running first to the material’s provider, researchers can use simulation software to predict the absorption properties of a material before investing in potentially expensive experiments. This software also clearly organizes simulation projects so, as with electronic laboratory notebooks, group members can go back to uncover past designs and potentially improve them.
  • Collaboration: Simulation software often enables members of a research team to review each other’s work, while also suggesting improvements thus capitalizing on the benefits of collaboration in a scientific environment. For example, after a simulation exercise, one researcher might notice properties of the material that were missed by another person. Additionally, even if a material is predicted to have a low efficiency of solar absorption, another team member could decide to maintain the general design and replace the action photovoltaic material. Thus, the use of simulation software encourages individuals to work together toward the common goal of improving the world’s solar cells.

Solar cells inspired by materials science and nanotechnology are expected to “push efficiencies up and costs down,” but presently are still fairly inefficient. As researchers tackle the challenge of producing small, inexpensive, but ultimately very efficient solar cells, group leaders should consider the use of simulation and modeling technology such as BIOVIA’s Materials Studio. To learn more about this and other digital laboratory solutions, and how we can assist your research efforts, please contact us today.

  1. “World energy consumption,” July 18, 2015, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_energy_consumption
  2. “The Sun,” NA, http://needtoknow.nas.edu/energy/energy-sources/the-sun/
  3. “Solar,” http://needtoknow.nas.edu/energy/energy-sources/renewable-sources/solar/
  4. “Bringing solar cell efficiencies into the light,” September 3, 2014, http://www.nature.com/nnano/journal/v9/n9/full/nnano.2014.206.html
  5. “Materials science: Fast-track solar cells,” September 19, 2013, http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v501/n7467/full/nature12557.html
  6. “Materials Scientists Make Solar Energy Chip 100 Times More Efficient,” March 19, 2013, http://engineering.stanford.edu/research-profile/materials-scientists-make-solar-energy-chip-100-times-more-efficient

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