Solar Film

A newly developed super-thin solar film promises to revolutionize solar energy.

One day soon you may be able to roll a super-thin solar film onto your roof to harness the sun’s free energy. The film, being developed by University of Arizona scientists, would roll out just like wallpaper and be a lot easier to handle than traditional, bulky solar panels. And, it would be considerably cleaner to manufacture and dispose of than thin-film solar panels that involve the use of heavy metals, like tellurium and selenium, in their production process.

Solar panels today are mostly silicon, which is a relatively efficient and reliable material for solar cells. In fact, using silicon, the solar industry has consistently grown an average of 25 percent each year. This energy source accounts for about 10 percent of all the renewable energy generated and some say it will be a $5 billion industry by 2010. The problem is that silicon-based solar panels are not getting any cheaper to produce and it’s difficult to make thin panels out of silicon.

Scientists believe that thin film panels are the wave of the future. Because of thin films’ ability to be placed on walls, windows and other surfaces, they’re apt to be more widely used than the big, bulky panels typically associated with solar energy. But the challenge has been in making a thin film that is as efficient and durable as silicon. And then there’s the matter of pollution – some thin-film materials may be too polluting. Thin-film technology has been developed using cadmium, telluride and selenide, but there are environmental concerns about the manufacture and disposal of these heavy metals. But now there’s a new development, which could lead to clean and efficient thin film solar panels.

Professor Neal Armstrong and a team of chemists and optical scientists at the University of Arizona, Tucson, are trying to develop molecules out of organic compounds – like carbon and hydrogen – that would arrange themselves into a super-thin film about 100 nanometers thick, or one-thousandth the thickness of a human hair. Organic materials currently are used in car stereo displays and for cell phones. These devices emit light using 100-nanometer-thick organic films that carry high-current densities.

It works like this: sunlight releases a stream of electrons that can be absorbed by certain materials. Organic molecules, like the carbon and hydrogen that would make up the solar film, have to be well ordered to receive the stream of electrons and transport them efficiently. On their own, they tend to line up in the wrong direction. Armstrong’s team is working on getting them to line up the right way – vertically instead of horizontally – and is using heat to get them to cooperate. Once lined up properly, they can be crystallized into a liquid and then, like paint, rolled out or sprayed on to flexible, transparent plastic, or even onto building materials themselves. Armstrong and his team will be working on this over the next three years and expect it’ll be another 10 years or so before consumers have easy access to these inexpensive, toxin-free organic solar panels.

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