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This Low-Cost, Organic Material Could Bring Solar Energy to All Electronics

Solar energy has been a game changer in energy production in recent years, but the game could be about the change again. Add graphene to the list of disruptive technologies that could transform energy infrastructure as we know it.
Kayla Matthews | @KaylaEMatthews | August 27, 2017, 1pm PDT
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Tayfun Ruzgar

The solar industry has grown rapidly as technologies for capturing the vast amounts of solar energy that hit our planet have improved.

Now, a new innovation could potentially double the amount of that energy that can be converted into electricity.

The advancement involves the use of graphene, a naturally occurring, carbon-containing material. This substance could put solar cells on practically everything from smartphones and laptops to windows.

What Is Graphene?

Graphene is a single layer of carbon atoms organized in a honeycomb pattern. Since it was first isolated in 2004, it's captured the imaginations of researchers and various industries due to its impressive properties.

Graphene is relevant to the solar industry because it's the world's most conductive material and can act as a barrier to moisture and oxygen, which cause corrosion. It's extremely flexible, light and thin—1 million times thinner than a human hair. However, it's also 200 times stronger than steel.

How It's Been Studied

Scientists have been studying this material for a variety of applications, including using it in solar cells.

In the past, graphene could not be used with silicon surfaces. This presented a challenge, since silicon is used in today's solar cells and will continue to play a central role in the future. Silicon carbide has been called the next generation of semiconductor.

At Korea University in Seoul, researchers developed a method for growing graphene on a silicon surface. This method uses ion implantation and a layer of carbon-soluble nickel. Accelerating the ions under an electrical field and then exposing the device to high temperatures creates a lattice structure of graphene.

“Doping” the graphene — that is, exciting the substance's electrons by chemically altering them—allows it to more efficiently conduct electricity.

When an electron gets excited, it's able to excite other electrons in turn. This puts energy to use producing electricity, rather than wasting it in the form of heat.

The Benefits of Graphene

Graphene offers the benefit of potentially being able to produce more electricity than other materials, while using the same amount of light. Its strength, flexibility, lightness, thinness and transparency also offer clear advantages.

Materials used in the past were more brittle than graphene. They often cracked if bent or jostled. The flexibility and strength of this new substance would allow it to be affixed to virtually anything, whether a solid object or a malleable one. Its toughness also allows it to better withstand impacts.

The fact that graphene is transparent also means it can be placed on surfaces without changing how they look. Even windows, screens and electronics could theoretically be covered in a layer of graphene without hindering their usefulness.

Additionally, the cost would be lower than with inorganic materials, making solar technology more affordable while also lowering electricity costs.

Challenges to the Use of Graphene

Using graphene in solar technologies isn't without challenges, which is why it isn't yet being widely used. Applying the graphene to some surfaces, such as the glass and plastic used in solar cells, can be tricky.

The surface the graphene is affixed to must be sensitive, so using solvents, heat and many other things can damage it.

Additionally, one of the electrodes in a solar cell must let electrons easily flow out of the cell. If both of the electrodes are graphene, the function of one must be altered, which isn't easy. Researchers are also looking into combining graphene with other conductive materials to make it even more efficient.

How Graphene Can Be Used

Ongoing research and development are beginning to reveal how to overcome these challenges. We may see graphene become a common part of solar technology in the near future.

With the use of graphene, we may be able to generate solar energy in places we never could before. And that electricity could be generated almost without being noticed.

Electronic devices could power themselves with standalone solar cells. Buildings could potentially be covered in solar technology that could generate power to run it. In the future, we may be able to stick ultra-thin solar cells to almost any surface we like.

Graphene may also become an important material in the production of smartphones, TVs and other gadgets. Manufacturers may use it in circuitry and screens because of its transparency, conductivity and ability to transmit light. It isn't just a fringe technology, either. Samsung, IBM, and SanDisk have already taken out graphene-related patents.

Future Possibilities

Graphene will likely first be used to upgrade the electronic devices and solar panels we use today. Chances are it will be a key ingredient in the gadgets of the future, too.

Graphene's flexibility makes it a perfect candidate for wearables, for example. It could also replace lithium in batteries and be used in manufacturing planes because it's so lightweight and would prevent moisture from seeping into the wings, which adds additional weight. It can even be modified to have a lot of tiny holes that can be used to filter and desalinate water.

The increased use of graphene would create a multi-faceted industry surrounding the material. There are opportunities for businesses to get involved in mining, producing and supplying graphene, as well as innovating new uses for it and manufacturing the equipment needed to process it.

These technological advancements would make solar energy more abundant and available to people even in remote locations. It could also boost the solar and tech industries, creating jobs and income.

As our supply of renewable and affordable energy increases, spurred on by the materials research you've just read about, we'll all get to share in the benefits—including vastly lower energy bills.

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