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Oregon State Professor's Breakthrough Uses Sun to Produce Solar Cells

The sun obviously provides the power source when it comes to solar energy, but an Oregon State University researcher says it can also produce the materials needed to harness that energy.

Chih-Hung Chang, a professor of chemical engineering, authored a study published in RSC Advances, a journal of the Royal Society of Chemistry, suggesting that the sun could be a "one-stop shop" for energy and production, as well as a cost reducer for solar power.

Chang and his researchers used a “continuous flow” microreactor to produce nanoparticle inks that make solar cells by printing, according to a study summary. Chang says existing approaches based mostly on batch operations cost more money and consume more time.

The sun can do more than provide energy when it comes to the solar power process, according to an Oregon State University research team. Graphic credit: Ki-Joong Kim/Oregon State University/Flickr

“Our system can synthesize solar energy materials in minutes compared to other processes that might take 30 minutes to two hours,” Chang said. “This gain in operation speed can lower cost.”

Simulated sunlight was focused on the microreactor to heat it quickly, which allowed the Chang team to monitor how temperature change impacted the quality of the energy. Solar materials were made with copper indium diselenide, but compounds like copper zinc tin sulfide could be used to cut costs, Chang said. Sunlight could initially be used to create molten salts that could later be used as an energy source for the manufacturing.

Chih-Hung Chang of Oregon State University is pictured. Photo credit: Oregon State University

"State-of-the-art chalcogenide-based, thin film solar cells have already reached a fairly high solar energy conversion efficiency of about 20 percent in the laboratory," according to the study briefing, "while costing less than silicon technology. Further improvements in efficiency should be possible."

The research was supported by by the Oregon Nanoscience and Microtechnologies Institute and the Oregon Built Environment and Sustainable Technologies Center.

The solar-absorbing layers of the film are thin at one or two microns, as opposed to the 50 to 100 microns of more conventional silicon cells. The end-product could be thin films onto windows, roof shingles and more to make for easier incorporation of solar energy into homes and businesses.

“This approach should work and is very environmentally conscious,” Chang said. “Several aspects of this system should continue to reduce the cost of solar energy and when widely used, our carbon footprint.

“It could produce solar energy materials anywhere there’s an adequate solar resource, and in this chemical manufacturing process, there would be zero energy impact.”

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