Everyone agrees that there is a massive need for cheap, low environmental impact, high-efficiency solar cells to not only help combat climate change but to reduce the overall cost of electricity as well making it more cost-effective and easier to bring electricity to the far reaches of the globe. At the moment, most solar cells that are produced at a scale that can be used for mass-energy production are made from copper and silver and are fairly toxic to produce, but a newly discovered thin film metal patterning technique could change that.


An example of a patterned metal made using the new technique

Photo Credit: The University of Warwick


Researchers and scientists from the University of Warwick have just released a new study on a new process that could make solar cell production cheaper, faster, and more efficient. Current production methods waste a portion of the expensive metals used in the process of etching the correct pattern on each solar cell, leading to higher production cost, and a larger environmental impact due to the harsh chemicals used in the etching process. During their research, Dr. Ross Hatton and Dr. Silvia Varagnolo discovered that copper and silver do not stick to some highly-fluorinated organic compounds.  


This new process uses an organofluorine compound that is at its basic level, similar to those used in non-stick cookware. This compound is deposited on a thin sheet of plastic in the desired pattern. Then the metal is deposited onto the plastic sheet using a thermal vaporization process. If you have ever wondered how they get the shiny foil on the inside of a bag of potato chips, it's very similar.


All three researchers from left to right: Dr Ross Hatton, Dr Silva Varagnolo and Dr Jaemin Lee

Photo Credit: The University of Warwick


What makes this so appealing is that not only does the organofluorine layer need to extremely thin at about 10-nanometers thick, there is no metal wasted in during a bath in toxic chemicals. This saves resources which in turn, lowers the cost of production. More importantly though, with no metals wasted, and most of the harsh chemicals removed from the process, these new solar panels will be more environmentally friendly than their previous counterparts.


Furthermore, this new method for making solar cells allows for a much thinner design that is flexible, and since nothing sticks to the organofluorine layer, manufacturers can design in millions or billions of tiny holes in the panel’s electrode that allow light to pass through, which could lead to solar cells being integrated into windows on electric vehicles, buildings, and more.


This technology could also lead to new, more sensitive, and efficient sensors as it will be much easier to create a crisp, clean pattern in any shape desired due to the extremely clean surfaces that are capable of the vapor deposition process. This will allow the sensing metals to better bond with the base metal, producing a more sensitive sensor overall. Since harsh etching chemicals have been removed from the manufacturing process, the solar cells can be produced continually from a roll of the base film, greatly speeding up production times.


Dr Hatton from the Department of Chemistry at the University of Warwick comments: "This innovation enables us to realize the dream of truly flexible, transparent electrodes matched to needs of the emerging generation of thin-film solar cells, as well as having numerous other potential applications ranging from sensors to low-emissivity glass"


Funding for this research was provided by the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council in the form of a £1.15M grant.


If you would like to read further, the research paper can be viewed here.