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Energy production involves basic challenges like cost, mass production and useful efficiencies. Nanotechnology provides most promising solutions to these problems. Solar cells which use silicon through vacuum deposition suffer from losses and high costs. These can be replaced by plastic solar cells that use nanorods. Quantum dots for solar cells provide better efficiencies. Nanoparticle inks with the use of cadmium indium gallium diselinide provide thin film photo voltaic cells which are printable solar cells. Researchers believe that the use of nanotechnology in solar panels, photovoltaics would bring a revolution where roofs will allow solar power generation. Also, hydrogen fuel cells can be used in automobiles with the help of carbon nanotubes (CNT’S) and buckyballs. In this paper, all these recent breakthroughs of nanotechnology in the field of solar power and hydrogen fuel cells are discussed.
Energy resources that share a major part in the world today are threat to extinction. Solar energy, as a known fact is 20000 times more than the required energy. But, we are unable to use even 1% of it efficiently. Nanotechnology gives many solutions for efficient and costeffective solar power generation. Some of those are: •Plastic solar cells •Quantum dots for solar cells •Thin film photovoltaics or printable solar cells The other energy source that can be made possible with the help of nanotechnology is hydrogen fuel cell. Hydrogen fuel cells are the devices which convert hydrogen directly into electricity. Designing a safe compact fuel tank for these is a problem which can be solved by nanotechnology.
Solar Cells and Their Drawbacks
Conventional solar cells are called photovoltaic cells. These cells are made out of semiconducting material, usually silicon. When light hits the cells, they absorb energy through photons. This absorbed energy knocks out electrons in the silicon, allowing them to flow. By adding different impurities to the silicon such as phosphorus or boron, an electric
field can be established. This electric field acts as a diode, because it only allows electrons to flow in one direction consequently, the end result is a current of electrons, better known to us as electricity. Conventional solar cells have two main drawbacks: They can only achieve efficiencies around ten percent and they are expensive to manufacture. The first drawback, inefficiency, is almost unavoidable with silicon cells. This is because the incoming photons, or light, must have the right energy, called the band gap energy, to knock out an electron. If the photon has less energy than the band gap energy then it will pass through. If it has more energy than the band gap, then that extra energy will be wasted as heat. Scott Aldous, an engineer for the North Carolina Solar Center explains that, “These two effects alone account for the loss of around 70 percent of the radiation energy incident on the cell”
Plastic Solar Cells
Plastic solar cells utilize nanotechnology to generate power. These new plastic solar cells achieve efficiencies of only 1.7 percent but these are very cost effective. These new plastic solar cells utilize tiny nanorods dispersed within in a polymer. The nanorods behave as wires because when they absorb light of a specific wavelength they generate electrons. These electrons flow through the nanorods until they reach the aluminum electrode where they are combined to form a current and are used as electricity. This type of cell is cheaper to manufacture than conventional ones for two main reasons. First, these plastic cells are not made from silicon, which can be very expensive. Second, manufacturing of these cells does not require expensive equipment such as clean rooms or vacuum chambers like conventional silicon based solar cells. Instead, these plastic cells can be manufactured in a beaker.
Quantum Dots for Solar Cells
Much of the sun’s energy is wasted by today’s photovoltaic cells. When solar photons strike a solar cell, they release electrons in the semiconductor to produce an electric current. However, when an electron is set free by the photon, it collides often with a near by atom making it less likely to set another electron free. So even though the sun’s solar photons carry enough energy to release several electrons, producing more electricity, they are limited to one electron per solar photon. As a result, conventional solar cells operate at 15 to 20 percent efficiency using solar energy. Scientists have been doing a lot of research and experiments with quantum dots to make photovoltaic cells more efficient. Researchers at the National
Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and the Los Alamos National Laboratory have been experimenting with quantum dots as a semiconductor in a solar cell. They have discovered that the use of the quantum dots allows solar energy to release multiple electrons, not just one. This research has the potential to make major improvements in the manufacturing of photovoltaic cells. The two research teams have calculated that a maximum of solar conversion to electricity to a 42 percent efficiency rate is possible from the conversion of solar energy to electricity. The solar cells could be used to make hydrogen directly from water for fuel cells. The researchers still need more time and research to complete their studies.
Thin Film Photovoltaics
With the emergence of technologies other than silicon, the thin film photovoltaics have attracted significant attention. Silicon used in the solar cells is very expensive. Efficiencies of various cells are tabulated below.
c-si mc-si Thin film si (single junction) CIGS CdTe
Cell efficiency (%)
24.7 20.3 10-12 19.9 16.5
Module efficiency (%)
22.7 15.3 5-8 13.4 10.7
92 75 * 67 65
Based on these results, CIGS seems to have the most commercial potential. It is the only thin film technology that even approaches the performance of crystalline silicon. Thin film silicon, in contrast, lags far behind. Indeed, the positive outlook for CIGS solar cells is reflected in the venture funding received by companies such as Nanosolar. Yet actually achieving such superior performance in commercial production has been difficult, for two reasons. First, CIGS is a complex quaternary alloy in which indium and gallium can substitute freely. The band gap of the cell changes as the composition fluctuates. Consistent performance requires uniform deposition over the entire area of the panel. One possible solution, co-sputtering of all four elements, can fail because of target poisoning: the selenium reacts with the surfaces of the other targets, and creates an insulating layer that resists further sputtering. An alternative method, co-sputtering of copper, indium, and gallium, followed by a hydrogen selenide vapor treatment, requires substantial time at elevated temperatures. The time increases the process cost, while the elevated temperature causes phase segregation.
Phase control is especially important in light of Heliovolt founder B. J. Stanbery’s identification of an intra-absorber junction (IAJ) in the CIGS layer. According to Stanbery, the CIGS layer actually consists of a p-type Cu (In, Ga) Se2 α-phase and an In-rich Cu (In, Ga) 3Se5 n-type β-phase. Carriers generated in the bulk as electron-hole pairs are swept to the appropriate terminal by the potential at the IAJ. Cell performance therefore depends not only on the overall composition uniformity, but also on nanoscale fluctuations that cause preferential formation of either α-phase or β-phase material. Because of the challenges inherent in the material, the commercial production of CIGS has so far fallen short of the more exuberant projections. As well, it is difficult to quantify actual production capacity because of the uncertainty surrounding Nanosolar’s new CIGS plant. Though Nanosolar reports that it is building a massive 430 MW plant in San Jose, the first panels shipped less than a year ago and the company has yet to make any other substantial shipments. Nanosolar has published no information about the performance of its commercial cells, which is in sharp contrast with the company’s aggressive claims two years ago of solar panels for $1/W. Global Solar, which expects to reach 100 MW of capacity by 2010, appears to have the largest actual capacity in the sector. NanoMarkets expects that CIGS’ share of the thin film PV market will expand as these investments come online, but for now the technology accounts for about 10 percent of thin film PV sales.
Nanosolar is a company that devised a technology to design printable solar cells in which CIGS is used. The company uses copper indium gallium diselenide which achieves up to 19.9% efficiency in laboratory samples to build their thin film solar cells. The company's technology gained early industry recognition with the presentation of a Small Times Magazine award at a leading nanotech business event in 2005. Nanosolar's solar cells have been verified by NREL to be as efficient as 14.6% in 2006, with no more recent results announced by the company. These details involve a semiconductor ink that it claims will enable it to produce solar cells with a basic printing process, rather than using slow and expensive high-vacuum based thin-film deposition processes. In Nanosolar's process, the ink is deposited on a flexible substrate (the “paper”), and then nano components in the ink align themselves properly via molecular self-assembly. Nanosolar has developed a suite of in-house capabilities for creating nano structured components based on various patented and patent-pending techniques. It uses nano structured
components as the basis for creating printable semiconductors, printable transparent electrodes, novel forms of advanced nano composite solar-cell design and powerful new forms of barrier films. According to the company, "leveraging recent science advances in nano structured materials; nanosolar has developed a proprietary ink that makes it possible to simply print the semiconductor of a high-performance solar cell. This ink is based on Nanosolar developing various proprietary forms of nano particles and associated organic dispersion chemistry and processing techniques suitable for delivering a semiconductor of high electronic quality." Two advantages over earlier technologies are that a printing process is quick and also makes it easy to deposit a uniform layer of the ink, resulting in a layer with the correct ratio of elements everywhere on the substrate. Also, the ink is printed only where needed, so there is less waste of material. Last, the substrate material on which the ink is printed is much more conductive and less expensive than the stainless steel substrates that are often used in thinfilm solar panels. These solar cells successfully blend the needs for efficiency, low cost, and longevity and will be easy to install due to their flexibility and light weight. Estimates by Nanosolar of the cost of these cells fall roughly between 1/10 th and 1/5th, the industry standard per kilowatt.
Hydrogen Fuel Cells
The next technological advance in energy will be the use of fuel cells. Hydrogen fuel cells are devices that directly convert hydrogen into electricity. Fuel cells can provide electricity to power motor vehicles and to heat and light homes, office buildings, and factories. The hydrogen fuel cell vehicle is also an excellent alternative to fossil fuel vehicles because hydrogen produces no carbon dioxide when burned, and the fuel cell requires little maintenance because it has few moving parts.
Problems Associated with Hydrogen Fuel Cell
One of the major obstacles in fuel cell research is designing a safe, light weight, and compact hydrogen fuel tank that can store sufficient amounts of hydrogen. Hydrogen is a gas, and is not dense, so to store enough of it in a tank you have to compress it at very high pressures. Another option is to store the hydrogen gas chemically by bonding it with another material. The carbon nanotubes may be the answer to the storage problem. The reason is that hydrogen easily bonds to carbon nanotubes. Placing a grid of coated nanotubes (or buckyballs) inside the tank, the nanotubes would “soak up” the hydrogen like a sponge. As a
result, the nanotube grid has the capacity to absorb large amounts of hydrogen gas in a tank about the size of an automobile gas tank. Once the tank is ﬁlled up with the hydrogen, the driver would start the car engine. This action would cause the hydrogen to dislodge from its storage area, the tank, and ﬂoat through a hose into the fuel cell. In the fuel cell, the hydrogen would be converted into electricity and water vapor. However, while fuel cells look promising, more research will need to be done before a mass production of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are on the road.
The advancements in the nanotechnology opened the gates of complexities involved in solar power and hydrogen fuel cells and made them more reliable. Yet there is a need for consistent research for obtaining desired results. Researchers believe, nanotechnology would revolutionize the updated science such that we can anticipate pollution free vehicles moving on the road and every roof top with nano solar panels.
Nanotechnology 101 by John Mongillo Nonconventional Energy Sources by G.D.Rai www.wikipedia.org www.scribd.com www.nanosolar.com