Dartmouth News Department has a piece (see it here) about Thayer School of Engineering Professor Jifeng Liu, whose research includes efforts to make thin-film solar panels, which has long been a goal for better or cheaper solar power.
His solar cell materials research at Thayer uses evaporation coating to deposit a very thin layer of the elements germanium and tin on to an amorphous surface such as plastic or glass. Germanium was used to create the first semiconductor transistor in the 1940s, but has since been replaced by silicon, a close neighbor on the periodic table.
The idea is to create a thin coating of this semiconductor material on inexpensive surfaces such as plastic, as a template for high efficiency solar cells, in which photons from solar light can be better harvested, generating electricity more efficiently. In the current high efficiency solar cell technology, this process requires either a single-crystal germanium or a single-crystal gallium arsenide template. This material works well, but it is expensive.
Liu and his team are also working to develop a way to store solar energy with a different nanostructured thin-film surface that allows sunlight to heat liquid, known as “working fluid,” to temperatures greater than 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit while insulating the container from heat loss. This process, funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Sunshot Initiative, would use the stored solar thermal energy to drive heat engines, making solar power available at night and on cloudy days.
Liu is already collaborating to commercialize this technology with a local company called Norwich Technologies,