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Researchers Use Microwaves, Ovens to Build New Solar Technology

Wednesday, September 12th 2012 8:55 AM
By GetSolar Staff.
Researchers Use Microwaves, Ovens to Build New Solar Technology Researchers are always developing new and better ways of building solar panels and other pieces of equipment for use in photovoltaic or solar water heating systems. These new technologies make it easier and more affordable for manufacturers to make the equipment, which in turn can make solar energy an even more cost-effective option for homeowners and businesses across the country.

Cooking Up Photovoltaic Equipment in a Microwave
Researchers at Oregon State University have devised a system that uses a microwave to combine three commonly-found metals into a material that can convert sunlight into electricity, TreeHugger reported.

Manufacturers currently turn to rare earth metals like indium during the building process, and they have to worry about obtaining a constant supply of rare and expensive material. The new cells developed at OSU solve this dilemma by making photovoltaic materials out of copper, zinc and tin - three commonly-available and more budget-friendly building material options for solar panel makers, according to TreeHugger.

To make things even more affordable, the three metals can now be cooked together in a microwave instead of in an oven. By utilizing this process, manufacturers can more cheaply make either nanoparticles or an ink-like substance to use when making solar panels, according to the OSU College of Engineering.

"This approach should save money, work well and be easier to scale up at commercial levels, compared to traditional synthetic methods," Greg Herman, an associate professor in the School of Chemical, Biological and Environmental Engineering at OSU, said in a statement. "Microwave technology offers more precise control over heat and energy to achieve the desired reactions."

Another benefit of this new manufacturing process, according to TreeHugger, is that it is far less toxic to workers in comparison to other rare metals.

Solar Panels in the (Optical) Oven
Researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) have devised a system that uses light bulbs instead of a traditional heating element to combine the materials used in the manufacturing of silicon-based photovoltaic panels, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Technology Review.

The current most popular method for manufacturing solar panels involves heating up silicon to close to 1,000 degrees Celsius. The NREL team has developed a furnace that concentrates light on just the silicon wafers so that the energy used to make panels is cut in half. In addition, the new method is better at removing impurities that can decrease electricity output and  can make it more cost-effective for manufacturers to create high-end oxidized panels, MIT Technology Review reported.

The system currently makes solar panels that are only half a percentage point more efficient than already-existing panel manufacturing technology, but NREL researchers think their optical methodology has the potential to make photovoltaic equipment that is up to 4 percent more efficient, according to Technology Review.

Environmentally Friendly Mirror-Like Solar Power System
Using glass or plastic to concentrate sunlight onto a photovoltaic array is not a new idea, but an Oregon-based company has developed a system that is eco-friendly in more ways than one. Not only does the half-dome shaped system designed by SolenSphere Renewables reduce the panel surface area needed by a factor of 1,000, but it also is made from 50 percent post-consumer recycled materials, TreeHugger reported.

The system utilizes two mirrors - a larger parabolic surface and a smaller concentrating surface - to channel sunlight onto a smaller surface. The co-founders of SolenSphere Renewables, Corbyn Jahn and Adam Burwell, told GeekWire that their system is capable of capturing about 72 percent of available sunlight.

To make the system even more efficient, the design also uses sunlight to heat up a liquid. The liquid complements the photovoltaic energy output and can store power for later use during times when sunlight is not optimal, GeekWire reported.

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