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Printable Tandem Solar Cells: The Next Revolution in Solar Energy

Funding from the U.S. Department of Energy SunShot Initiative will help catalyze the development of next-generation solar cells at UW

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The cost of electricity from new solar cell installations is starting to compete with electricity from new coal and nuclear plants in sunny locations. Thanks to research at the University of Washington, the solar cells of the near future might be printed from inks and reach efficiencies more than double that of today’s typical solar cells, reducing the cost of electricity to below the level of even natural gas, the cheapest fossil fuel available now. They may even be able to compete with the low cost electricity from hydroelectric generation in cloudiest of locations in the Pacific Northwest.

UW professors Hugh Hillhouse and Alex Jen have been studying the factors that influence the cost of solar energy. The major factors that contribute to the cost of electricity from present day solar cells are the efficiency in converting sunlight to electricity, the cost of processing the materials and fabricating the devices, and the cost of assembling and installing solar cell systems.

Striving for high-efficiency and low-cost, Hillhouse and Jen have developed a method to fabricate a tandem, or “stacked,” solar cell by printing inks that yield materials with high bandgap and low bandgap on top of each other. The two materials work in tandem to generate more voltage and power than can be created with either material by itself.

In particular, working with the UW Center for Commercialization, Hillhouse has patented unique device architectures that may allow these solar cells to reach 30% efficiency. By comparison current-day low-cost polycrystalline silicon solar modules are around 15% efficient. In addition, Jen has patented new materials and interface chemistry that allow key layers in the tandem to be printed. Working together, the team hopes to be able to print a new generation of high-efficiency low-cost solar cells.

Their initial research, funded in part by the UW Clean Energy Institute, helped the team win $1.5 million of funding from the Next Generation Photovoltaics 3 Program, which is part of the U.S. Department of Energy SunShot Initiative. The award was announced today at the Solar Power International conference in Las Vegas, Nevada.

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Photo: Photovoltaic inks are use to print solar cells on a bench-top roll-to-roll coater at the University of Washington

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