Solar cells feel the heat

Solar energy company, SolarPrint, is only five years old but its super smart technology has already caught the attention of major multinationals such as Analog Devices, Intel and EnOcean.

Who: UCD Surface Engineering Research Group, the Solar Energy Conversion Research Cluster and SolarPrint
What: To develop a new processing technology for solar cells
When: Since 2008 and ongoing
Why: To improve the efficiency and cost competitiveness of manufacturing dye-sensitised solar cells

The company was founded in 2008 to develop Dye-Sensitised Solar Cells (DSSC) - a third-generation printable solar cell technology that can be produced using low cost raw materials. The company’s technology can convert light from any source into energy and has a number of potential large scale applications such as consumer electronics and wireless devices.

SolarPrint has been in pilot production since 2010 and its current focus is on integrating its DSSC with wireless devices such as sensors to harvest energy in buildings. A sensor monitored building can reduce energy usage by as much as 50% and SolarPrint’s self powered sensors, which can operate in diffuse or low light, require no maintenance and can be installed easily and quickly.

SolarPrint has come a long way in a short period of time and while company co-founder, Dr Mazhar Bari, attributes this mainly to the intensive and fast-moving R&D carried on in-house, he also acknowedges the contribution made by UCD to SolarPrint’s rapid development.

SolarPrint has been a partner in the UCD-led Solar Energy Conversion Research Cluster since its formation in December 2007. The cluster, which is funded by Science Foundation Ireland, is led by UCD’s Professor Don MacElroy and one of its lead researchers is Dr Denis Dowling, director of the UCD Surface Engineering Research Group.

One of Dowling’s areas of expertise is microwave processing technology and he could see potential for this emerging technology with SolarPrint. “A considerable amount of the work I’ve been doing within the cluster has been focused on SolarPrint with respect to developing ways of making their cells more efficient,” he says. “We’ve developed a patented technology based on low energy microwave plasma processing technology that can complete one of the key tasks involved in the company’s manufacturing process – sintering - in about 10 minutes compared with the several hours using the conventional furnace method.

“We had been working on microwave processing technology for a number of years and proposed to them that we would look at it in relation to their product,” Dowling adds. “We took SolarPrint’s cells and processed them using both our plasma treatments, as well as their methodology and found significant improvements in efficiency with our method. It is, of course, much lower risk for a start-up company to take an existing technology and work with that. But for SolarPrint to get the scale and throughput it will need to support its growth into the future it may be appropriate for them to consider a new technology. If we can prove that a scaled up process can achieve the same results as the lab system (which we hope to do within the next 18 months), then it should be a commercially viable technology that would give them a considerable competitive advantage.”

Dowling says that apart from the opportunity to collaborate with SolarPrint on this pioneering project, UCD has gained from the interaction in a number of other ways including the publication of over a dozen journal pubications on microwave processing technology, a patent application and a licencing agreement with SolarPrint.

“Being part of the solar cluster consortium has been very beneficial for SolarPrint on several different levels,” says Dr Mazhar Bari. “We have had a number of interns from the group working with our company and have also hired from the group so we are benefitting directly from academic expertise. In fact the collaboaration with UCD is a good example of how these partnerships should work as there has been real buy in from all of those involved.

“As a small company it is of great benefit to have access to the knowledge base and to novel new materials and processes but also to equipment and technology for testing puproses that we couldn’t possibly afford in our own right,” Bari adds. “We have now licensed the microwave plasma processing technology from UCD and are evaluating if this is where the future lies for us. It will depend on a number of factors such as resources and the roadmap we decide on for the company, but we know the fundamental science works and that is a very good starting point in any decision making process.”

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