Speed and efficiency. Efficiency and speed. If solar research laboratories have locker rooms, surely some variation of that maxim must be posted above the entry tunnel into the lab, where white-coated, eyeglass-wearing, fuzzy-faced scientists bump chests and bounce in a circle to get psyched up for another round of research.
The fact is that while researchers race to develop new and more efficient solar products, beyond the laboratory walls a world of hope, climate (and wallet) anxiety, speculation, optimism, pessimism and hunger abounds. New and improved solar technologies cannot come fast enough for politics or populace. Everybody wants to see reports of 20-percent efficient thin-film solar panels hitting rooftops, but it’s hard to translate lab results into real-world solar energy production.
To that end, we report today on a new multitasking robot in use at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado. The time- and labor-saving machine can build, test and process a thin-film solar cell in one fell swoop, all while prepping the next cell and semiconductor for processing.
The robot can deposit a semiconductor onto a six-inch substrate of glass, plastic or flexible metal in 35 minutes. The plate is then analyzed for any flaws and how much light it absorbs. This is all done within a completely vacuum-sealed environment, all while the next six substrates are being prepared. According to NREL, there are six of these robots currently in use in its Process Development and Integration Laboratory (PDIL), each working with a different semiconductor.
The end goal is to provide more efficient, more consistent and less expensive solar cell materials, which could lead to thin-film solar arrays that are competitive with bulkier, market-dominating silicon-based PV panels. NREL can now complete in one laboratory, in one machine, what used to require several trips to several different labs.
Photo Credit: NREL