How thin-film technology is making solar panels sustainable

New thin-film technology is using sustainable components for solar panels. The novel method creates efficient alloy-based solar panels free of toxic metals.

Commercialized thin-film solar panels on the market consist of rare-earth elements like indium and gallium, or highly toxic metals like cadmium. Both of these thin-film solar panel types have their own problems, such as high-cost and problems in use in living places.

A team of scientists from DGIST (Daegu Gyeongbuk Institute of Science and Technology), led by Dr Jin-Kyu Kang and Dr Dae-Hwan Kim, has been experimenting with solar panels made from cheaper and more abundant elements.

Dr Kang elaborates on the reasons based on which they chose their materials for the study in a statement: “Thin-film solar cells using bronze (Cu-Sn) and brass (Cu-Zn) as base materials are composed of non-toxic earth-abundant materials, and have been studied worldwide because of their low cost, high durability, and sustainability.”

Finding the best way to synthesize

However, using these alloys in thin film technology has its own drawbacks. While the theoretical efficiency of these panels matches the efficiencies of top market products, in practice, they tend to underperform drastically.

This is because of the formation of various defects in the materials, such as “point” defect, “surface” defect, and “volume” defect, during “annealing” (or the process of heating and cooling to make a CZTSSe film). These defects undermine the current flow, resulting in loss of electricity generated.

Therefore, the scientists wanted to find a way to synthesize the best quality CZTSSe (copper, zinc, tin, sulfur, and selenium) thin films. They played around with the annealing profile, which has a strong effect on the grain size of CZTSSe thin film: the longer the annealing time and higher annealing temperature, the larger the grains, and the lesser the electricity loss.

Growing large at low temperatures

However, as the annealing temperature and time increase, there is a change in the properties of the CZTSSe thin film due to decomposition. To bypass this issue, the team used a special “liquid-assisted method,” which allowed the grains of CZTSSe to grow at a faster rate. This meant that the grains could grow large even at low temperatures, preventing the change in the properties of the CZTSSe thin film.

With this new observation, a significant hurdle has been overcome in the search for low-cost environment-friendly solar energy. Dr Kim concludes, “Our technology has diverse applications, including in electronic devices, household goods, buildings, and vehicles. The best part is that CZTS solar cells are free of the current drawbacks of toxic and rare metals. We can install everywhere we want!”

Image credit: Michael Mazengarb via Flickr

 

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