Colored PV cells from Fraunhofer IOF could improve solar building façades

July 8, 2013
Jena, Germany--Fraunhofer IOF is making it possible for building designers to bring colorful creations to solar façades that are a huge improvement compared to conventional the black or bluish-gray colored solar panels.

Jena, Germany--With the help of new thin-film photovoltaic (PV) technologies from the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Optics and Precision Engineering (Fraunhofer IOF), building designers can bring colorful creations to solar façades that are a huge improvement compared to conventional the black or bluish-gray colored solar panels. "Not enough work has been done so far on combining photovoltaics and design elements to really do the term 'customized photovoltaics' justice," says Kevin Füchsel, project manager at Fraunhofer IOF. But things are changing.

The IOF physicist has been focusing for the last four years on nanostructured solar cells suitable for mass production as part of a junior research group funded by Germany's Federal Ministry for Education and Research (BMBF). Together with a Fraunhofer team and scientists from the Friedrich-Schiller University in Jena, the group of optics specialists is looking for cost-effective techniques and manufacturing processes to increase both the efficiency of solar panels (http://www.laserfocusworld.com/articles/print/volume-49/issue-05/features/photonics-applied--renewable-energy--overcapacity-stifles-solar-.html) and the design flexibility they give architects and designers.

Füchsel is currently working with his team on the fundamentals of how to make colored solar cells from paper-thin silicon wafers. These will be particularly suited to designs for decorative façades and domestic roofs. The silicon semiconductor material, just a few micrometers thick, absorbs light and turns it into electricity. To enable lots of light to reach the silicon substrate, the semiconductor layer is given an optically neutral protective barrier (insulator), onto which a hundred-nanometer-thick oxide layer is applied. This transparent conductive oxide (TCO) (http://www.laserfocusworld.com/articles/2009/05/photovoltaics-short-wave-infrared-cameras-characterize-thin-film-solar-cells.html) conducts electricity, and is there primarily to guide as many light particles as possible to the semiconductor layer below. "TCO has a lower refractive index than silicon, so it works as an anti-reflective coating," Füchsel says.

The simple construction of this SIS (semiconductor-insulator-semiconductor) solar cell, with its transparent outer layer, has a further advantage: Not only does it capture more light, it means solar panels can be made in different colors and shapes. "The color comes from changing the physical thickness of the transparent conductive oxide layer, or modifying its refractive index," Füchsel says. The Jena-based researchers have thus managed to combine wafer-based silicon with processes borrowed from thin-film photovoltaics. They are also pioneering the use of innovative coating materials. Indium tin oxide is the most common material used today, but it is expensive. The IOF laboratory is working on how to use cheaper zinc oxide with added aluminum. New opportunities in façade design are being opened up not just by SIS solar cells, however, but also by dye solar modules and flexible organic solar cells.

But how does color affect the efficiency of these new SIS modules? "Giving solar cells color doesn't really affect their efficiency. The additional transparent TCO layer has barely any impact on the current yield," Füchsel says. Simulations showed that SIS cells could be up to 20% efficient. In practice, the efficiency depends on the design of the solar panels and the direction the building faces. But not every color allows you to generate the same amount of electricity. There are restrictions for example with certain blends of red, blue, and green.

To connect several solar cells to create a single module, the IOF scientist will use laser-based optical welding processes. They enable accurate work at a micrometer scale and do not damage the surrounding material. Researchers are also developing an inkjet printing process to contact the conductive TCO later on the silicon wafer. This will make manufacturing faster and allow additional degrees of flexibility in design. SIS solar cells could even be used to make large billboards that produce their own electricity. Patents already cover the production of colored cells, as well as the ability to integrate design elements into solar panels and whole modules. "This opens up numerous possibilities to use a building to communicate information, displaying the name of a company or even artistic pictures," Füchsel says.

SOURCE: Fraunhofer IOF; http://www.fraunhofer.de/en/press/research-news/2013/july/bringing-color-to-solar-facades.html

About the Author

Gail Overton | Senior Editor (2004-2020)

Gail has more than 30 years of engineering, marketing, product management, and editorial experience in the photonics and optical communications industry. Before joining the staff at Laser Focus World in 2004, she held many product management and product marketing roles in the fiber-optics industry, most notably at Hughes (El Segundo, CA), GTE Labs (Waltham, MA), Corning (Corning, NY), Photon Kinetics (Beaverton, OR), and Newport Corporation (Irvine, CA). During her marketing career, Gail published articles in WDM Solutions and Sensors magazine and traveled internationally to conduct product and sales training. Gail received her BS degree in physics, with an emphasis in optics, from San Diego State University in San Diego, CA in May 1986.

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