Skin cells hold key to solar tech revolution

Monday, 25 February, 2019

Skin cells hold key to solar tech revolution

Scientists at Australian National University (ANU) have made a series of breakthroughs that could revolutionise solar technology, making it more efficient and accessible. To date, most research in the field has focused on improving the body of solar cells; however, the ANU research has focused on the skin layer, 1000 times thinner than a human hair and used to conduct electricity and protect the cell.

Lead researcher Dr Hieu Nguyen explained that when hydrogen atoms are injected into the skin of a solar cell, rather than the cell body, the performance of the entire structure is boosted significantly. “Hydrogen is the lightest element in the periodic table but extremely powerful for healing ‘wounds’ in semiconductor materials,” Dr Nguyen said. “Unfortunately, in nature, it [hydrogen] often exists in a molecular form (two atoms joined together). We got around this by placing another material with plenty of atomic hydrogen on top of the skin, then pushing the individual hydrogen atoms into the skin by simply heating the sample at 400°C.”

Researchers initially discovered that the solar skin layer emits light with some very distinct qualities. They quickly realised that the presence of hydrogen atoms dramatically changed the characteristics of the light, information that can be used to understand what’s going on inside the skin.

“Improving the skin layer is a critical step for achieving highly efficient solar cells,” PhD candidate Thien Truong said. “These discoveries will definitely help produce more robust and more efficient silicon solar cells since we now know how to manipulate this hydrogen content inside the skin to have a better solar cell.”

Funded by ARENA and the Australian Centre for Advanced Photovoltaics, the research is expected to lead to a replacement of traditional solar cell technology in the coming years. Dr Nguyen said this makes the team’s discoveries very significant for both solar manufacturing and research laboratories worldwide.

The research papers are published in ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces and ACS Applied Energy Materials.

Image courtesy of ANU.

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