Using Simulation Software to Predict Exposure-Related Deterioration of Solar Panel Materials

Materials Studio

Recent research on the deterioration of a polymer used in solar panels highlights the growing importance of predictive analysis in the field of materials science. Image credit: Flickr user ricketyus

The cost of solar energy is a hot topic in both scientific and political circles. A May 2017 study in PLOSOne, published by a team of researchers from Case Western Reserve University in Ohio and Gebze Technical University in Turkey, provides insight that may make it easier to develop more cost-efficient, reliable, and sustainable solar panels. The team used a computer model to predict the rate of degradation of a material used for solar cells, which could serve as the basis for future research on extending solar panel lifetimes and significantly reducing costs.

This research demonstrates the growing importance of predictive modeling in the field of materials science and engineering today. Using high-level predictive software, researchers can build on the recently published findings on the materials used for solar panels, and predict degradation rates for other protective materials and modify materials to make them more resistant to the elements.

Modeling the Effects of Weather Exposure on Solar Panel Materials

For their study, the scientists at Case Western Reserve and Gebze Technical University created longitudinal multi-level models to study the effects of weather exposure on polyethylene terephthalate (PET) films. PET is a common polymer with a wide range of industrial applications.

On solar panels, a PET film is added to the back of the module as an environmental barrier. It helps protect the module from damage caused by adverse weather conditions and ultraviolet (UV) light exposure. In addition, the PET layer serves as safety measure, protecting people from getting an electric shock if they accidentally touch the module.1

To evaluate the deterioration rate of the PET layers used on solar panels, the researchers exposed samples of PET to simulated weather conditions, including UV light and increased humidity. Then, they used the data for fixed- and mixed-effects modeling, which enabled them to predict the long-term degradation rates of the PET layers.2

Building on the PET Research to Improve PET Applications

According to the researchers, the results of their findings on the deterioration rates of PET could be used to extend the lifetimes of solar panels. For instance, the polymer could potentially be modified to make PET layers more durable when exposed to outside elements. By increasing the lifetime of solar panels, the overall amount of money spent per watt of electricity generation would decrease, which would make solar panels more affordable in the long run. Scientists can use modern software to visualize and understand the behavior of modified polymers and PET surfaces that could potentially be used on solar panels.

In addition to being used on solar panels, PET has wide range of other industrial applications. For instance, it is commonly used to make water bottles, microwavable food packaging, adhesive tape, and magnetic tape.3 The recent findings on PET deterioration could be extrapolated to support efforts to improve these types of materials as well. For instance, a more durable PET layer could make adhesive tape stick for longer. It could also help materials researchers find ways to develop packaging materials that keep food fresh for longer.

Modeling Deterioration Rates of Other Protective Materials

The rate of degradation isn’t just a problem for solar panels. Materials scientists are constantly looking for ways to protect outdoor structures from adverse weather conditions, whether it means preventing corrosion on the metal used for wind turbines or making the roofs of residential houses leak-proof in heavy rainstorms. Developing innovative materials to solve these kinds of problems requires an understanding of the relationship between a material’s molecular structure and its deterioration behavior. Today’s software applications are making it easier than ever to visualize materials on a computer and conduct simulations to predict their lifetime under various conditions.

Another benefit of modern software is that it enables collaboration between researchers from different fields. The study on PET degradation in solar panels combined the efforts of materials engineers, statisticians and epidemiologists from two universities an ocean apart. Similar work in the future will need to be just as multidisciplinary and collaborative, and modern software that enables real-time information sharing can increase research efficiency, regardless of geographic and departmental boundaries.

BIOVIA Materials Studio is a modeling and simulation environment that materials scientists can use to better understand the structure and behavior of a wide range of materials, including polymers like PET, as well as to predict their properties under various conditions. Contact us today to find out more about how this technology can support materials research and development efforts in your lab!

  1. “Engineering researchers apply data science to better predict the effect of weather and other conditions on solar panels,” June 6, 2017, http://thedaily.case.edu/engineering-researchers-apply-data-science-better-predict-effect-weather-conditions-solar-panels/
  2. “Predictive models of polyethylene terephthalate film degradation under multi-factor weathering exposures,” May 12, 2017, http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0177614
  3. “Recycling of polyethylene terephthalate (PET or PETE),” July 24, 2012, http://www.azocleantech.com/article.aspx?ArticleID=254#Properties_and_Applications_of_PET