The Department of Energy has awarded Professor Reinhold Dauskardt $1.165 million to study how factors such as heat fluctuations and moisture changes will affect the photovoltaic arrays that utility companies would use to build large scale solar power plants.
"Predicting the lifespan of new technologies is vital to their widespread adoption," said Dauskardt, the Ruth G. and William K. Bowes Professor in the School of Engineering. "You have to be confident that your investment will pay off."
During the course of the three-year award, Dauskardt will study concentrated photovoltaic (PV) systems, a type of solar array that is more efficient and more expensive than the rooftop arrays placed on homes and offices.
Concentrated PV systems use the same sort of high-cost, high-efficiency solar cells that are used to generate electricity aboard satellites in space. As their name suggests, concentrated PV systems also use lenses or mirrors to focus sunlight on these high-efficiency solar cells to further boost the conversion of photons to electrons.
Engineers already have some understanding of how such solar cells respond to changes in temperature because space-based arrays can also go from hot to cold depending on the satellite’s orientation toward the sun.
But concentrated PV arrays will also have to contend with moisture, a factor not present in space, as well as the stress of concentrating sunlight on these electronic parts.
"We all know what happens when you use a magnifying glass to focus sunlight on an object," Dauskardt said. "We're going to study the materials in concentrated photovoltaic systems to understand the physics and chemistry of how they respond to environmental stresses at the molecular and atomic levels."
Such data will be used to create simulations designed to help predict the lifespan and performance of the current generation of solar cells, as well as to suggest ways to reengineer their materials to increase and extend performance.
"Although this research isn't directly applicable to rooftop arrays, the insights we gain will eventually translate into improvements throughout the solar industry," Dauskardt said.
The award is being made as part of DOE’s SunShot Initiative, which is designed to make solar energy fully competitive with traditional energy sources before the end of the decade.