Nanotechnology being developed at the University of Texas at Dallas could lead to ultra-thin, flexible photovoltaic cells, opening the door to a wider variety of applications for solar technology.
The project team, Dr. Anton Malko, Dr. Yuri Gartstein, and Dr. Yves Chabal, is researching the viability of using ultra-thin materials for solar cells, with a lofty goal:
"Traditional silicon solar cells that are commercially available are made from silicon that is a couple of hundred microns thick. Our goal is to reduce that by a hundred times, down to about one micron thick, while at the same time maintaining efficiency." - Malko
Having PV cells only one micron thick would radically transform mobile solar applications, as the devices could be flexible and lightweight:
"Solar cells that are 100 microns thick are rigid and fragile. At the thickness we are investigating, devices would not only be lighter, but they also become flexible. There is a large market and application niche for flexible solar cells, such as on clothing or backpacks for hikers, or in situations where you need portable sources to power electronics." - Malko
The experimental devices use accurately positioned "quantum dots" (nanosized crystal particles), to absorb the sun's energy, layered in between nanomembranes of silicon (just 1/10th of a micron thick), to transfer the energy.
At this point in time, the researchers are still studying the way that energy is transferred through the devices and trying to determine the optimum placement of the quantum dots and thickness of layers, so a real-world device is not yet in the works.