Tag Archives: Mark Schwartz

Beautiful solar cells based on insect eyes

What a gorgeous image!

The compound eye of a fly inspired Stanford researchers to create a compound solar cell consisting of perovskite microcells encapsulated in a hexagon-shaped scaffold. (Image credit: Thomas Shahan/Creative Commons)

An August 31, 2017 news item on Nanowerk describes research into solar cells being performed at Stanford University (Note: A link has been removed),

Packing tiny solar cells together, like micro-lenses in the compound eye of an insect, could pave the way to a new generation of advanced photovoltaics, say Stanford University scientists.

In a new study, the Stanford team used the insect-inspired design to protect a fragile photovoltaic material called perovskite from deteriorating when exposed to heat, moisture or mechanical stress. The results are published in the journal Energy & Environmental Science (“Scaffold-reinforced perovskite compound solar cells”).

An August 31, 2017 Stanford University news release (also on EurekAlert) by Mark Schwartz, which originated the news item,

“Perovskites are promising, low-cost materials that convert sunlight to electricity as efficiently as conventional solar cells made of silicon,” said Reinhold Dauskardt, a professor of materials science and engineering and senior author of the study. “The problem is that perovskites are extremely unstable and mechanically fragile. They would barely survive the manufacturing process, let alone be durable long term in the environment.”

Most solar devices, like rooftop panels, use a flat, or planar, design. But that approach doesn’t work well with perovskite solar cells.

“Perovskites are the most fragile materials ever tested in the history of our lab,” said graduate student Nicholas Rolston, a co-lead author of the E&ES study. “This fragility is related to the brittle, salt-like crystal structure of perovskite, which has mechanical properties similar to table salt.”

Eye of the fly

To address the durability challenge, the Stanford team turned to nature.

“We were inspired by the compound eye of the fly, which consists of hundreds of tiny segmented eyes,” Dauskardt explained. “It has a beautiful honeycomb shape with built-in redundancy: If you lose one segment, hundreds of others will operate. Each segment is very fragile, but it’s shielded by a scaffold wall around it.”

Scaffolds in a compound solar cell filled with perovskite after fracture testing.

Scaffolds in a compound solar cell filled with perovskite after fracture testing. (Image credit: Dauskardt Lab/Stanford University)

Using the compound eye as a model, the researchers created a compound solar cell consisting of a vast honeycomb of perovskite microcells, each encapsulated in a hexagon-shaped scaffold just 0.02 inches (500 microns) wide.

“The scaffold is made of an inexpensive epoxy resin widely used in the microelectronics industry,” Rolston said. “It’s resilient to mechanical stresses and thus far more resistant to fracture.”

Tests conducted during the study revealed that the scaffolding had little effect on how efficiently perovskite converted light into electricity.

“We got nearly the same power-conversion efficiencies out of each little perovskite cell that we would get from a planar solar cell,” Dauskardt said. “So we achieved a huge increase in fracture resistance with no penalty for efficiency.”


But could the new device withstand the kind of heat and humidity that conventional rooftop solar panels endure?

To find out, the researchers exposed encapsulated perovskite cells to temperatures of 185 F (85 C) and 85 percent relative humidity for six weeks. Despite these extreme conditions, the cells continued to generate electricity at relatively high rates of efficiency.

Dauskardt and his colleagues have filed a provisional patent for the new technology. To improve efficiency, they are studying new ways to scatter light from the scaffold into the perovskite core of each cell.

“We are very excited about these results,” he said. “It’s a new way of thinking about designing solar cells. These scaffold cells also look really cool, so there are some interesting aesthetic possibilities for real-world applications.”

Researchers have also made this image available,

Caption: A compound solar cell illuminated from a light source below. Hexagonal scaffolds are visible in the regions coated by a silver electrode. The new solar cell design could help scientists overcome a major roadblock to the development of perovskite photovoltaics. Credit: Dauskardt Lab/Stanford University

Not quite as weirdly beautiful as the insect eyes.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Scaffold-reinforced perovskite compound solar cells by Brian L. Watson, Nicholas Rolston, Adam D. Printz, and Reinhold H. Dauskardt. Energy & Environmental Science 2017 DOI: 10.1039/C7EE02185B first published on 23 Aug 2017

This paper is behind a paywall.

No more kevlar-wrapped lithium-ion batteries?

Current lithium-ion batteries present a fire hazard, which is why, last, year a team of researchers at the University of Michigan came up with a plan to prevent fires by wrapping the batteries in kevlar. My Jan. 30, 2015 post describes the research and provides some information about airplane fires caused by the use of lithium-ion batteries.

This year, a team of researchers at Stanford University (US) have invented a lithium-ion (li-ion) battery that shuts itself down when it overheats, according to a Jan. 12, 2016 news item on Nanotechnology Now,

Stanford researchers have developed the first lithium-ion battery that shuts down before overheating, then restarts immediately when the temperature cools.

The new technology could prevent the kind of fires that have prompted recalls and bans on a wide range of battery-powered devices, from recliners and computers to navigation systems and hoverboards [and on airplanes].

“People have tried different strategies to solve the problem of accidental fires in lithium-ion batteries,” said Zhenan Bao, a professor of chemical engineering at Stanford. “We’ve designed the first battery that can be shut down and revived over repeated heating and cooling cycles without compromising performance.”

Stanford has produced a video of Dr. Bao discussing her latest work,

A Jan. 11, 2016 Stanford University news release by Mark Schwartz, which originated the news item, provides more detail about li-ion batteries and the new fire prevention technology,

A typical lithium-ion battery consists of two electrodes and a liquid or gel electrolyte that carries charged particles between them. Puncturing, shorting or overcharging the battery generates heat. If the temperature reaches about 300 degrees Fahrenheit (150 degrees Celsius), the electrolyte could catch fire and trigger an explosion.

Several techniques have been used to prevent battery fires, such as adding flame retardants to the electrolyte. In 2014, Stanford engineer Yi Cui created a “smart” battery that provides ample warning before it gets too hot.

“Unfortunately, these techniques are irreversible, so the battery is no longer functional after it overheats,” said study co-author Cui, an associate professor of materials science and engineering and of photon science. “Clearly, in spite of the many efforts made thus far, battery safety remains an important concern and requires a new approach.”


To address the problem Cui, Bao and postdoctoral scholar Zheng Chen turned to nanotechnology. Bao recently invented a wearable sensor to monitor human body temperature. The sensor is made of a plastic material embedded with tiny particles of nickel with nanoscale spikes protruding from their surface.

For the battery experiment, the researchers coated the spiky nickel particles with graphene, an atom-thick layer of carbon, and embedded the particles in a thin film of elastic polyethylene.

“We attached the polyethylene film to one of the battery electrodes so that an electric current could flow through it,” said Chen, lead author of the study. “To conduct electricity, the spiky particles have to physically touch one another. But during thermal expansion, polyethylene stretches. That causes the particles to spread apart, making the film nonconductive so that electricity can no longer flow through the battery.”

When the researchers heated the battery above 160 F (70 C), the polyethylene film quickly expanded like a balloon, causing the spiky particles to separate and the battery to shut down. But when the temperature dropped back down to 160 F (70 C), the polyethylene shrunk, the particles came back into contact, and the battery started generating electricity again.

“We can even tune the temperature higher or lower depending on how many particles we put in or what type of polymer materials we choose,” said Bao, who is also a professor, by courtesy, of chemistry and of materials science and engineering. “For example, we might want the battery to shut down at 50 C or 100 C.”

Reversible strategy

To test the stability of new material, the researchers repeatedly applied heat to the battery with a hot-air gun. Each time, the battery shut down when it got too hot and quickly resumed operating when the temperature cooled.

“Compared with previous approaches, our design provides a reliable, fast, reversible strategy that can achieve both high battery performance and improved safety,” Cui said. “This strategy holds great promise for practical battery applications.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Fast and reversible thermoresponsive polymer switching materials for safer batteries by Zheng Chen, Po-Chun Hsu, Jeffrey Lopez, Yuzhang Li, John W. F. To, Nan Liu, Chao Wang, Sean C. Andrews, Jia Liu, Yi Cui, & Zhenan Bao. Nature Energy 1, Article number: 15009 (2016) doi:10.1038/nenergy.2015.9 Published online: 11 January 2016

This paper appears to be open access.

Stanford team adds new energy (with graphene and carbon nanotubes) to 100 year old battery design

A nickel-iron battery designed to be recharged 100 years ago by Thomas Edison for use in electric vehicles has been revived with the addition of graphene. From the June 26, 2012 news item by Mark Schwartz on EurekAlert,

Designed in the early 1900s to power electric vehicles, the Edison battery largely went out of favor in the mid-1970s. Today only a handful of companies manufacture nickel-iron batteries, primarily to store surplus electricity from solar panels and wind turbines.

“The Edison battery is very durable, but it has a number of drawbacks,” said Hongjie Dai, a professor of chemistry at Stanford. “A typical battery can take hours to charge, and the rate of discharge is also very slow.”

Now, Dai and his Stanford colleagues have dramatically improved the performance of this century-old technology. The Stanford team has created an ultrafast nickel-iron battery that can be fully charged in about 2 minutes and discharged in less than 30 seconds. The results are published in the June 26 [2012] issue of the journal Nature Communications.

Here’s how the battery worked originally and what they’ve done to improve it,

Edison, an early advocate of all-electric vehicles, began marketing the nickel-iron battery around 1900. It was used in electric cars until about 1920. The battery’s long life and reliability made it a popular backup power source for railroads, mines and other industries until the mid-20th century.

Edison created the nickel-iron battery as an inexpensive alternative to corrosive lead-acid batteries. Its basic design consists of two electrodes – a cathode made of nickel and an anode made of iron – bathed in an alkaline solution. “Importantly, both nickel and iron are abundant elements on Earth and relatively nontoxic,” Dai noted.

Carbon has long been used to enhance electrical conductivity in electrodes. To improve the Edison battery’s performance, the Stanford team used graphene – nanosized sheets of carbon that are only one-atom thick – and multi-walled carbon nanotubes, each consisting of about 10 concentric graphene sheets rolled together.

“In conventional electrodes, people randomly mix iron and nickel materials with conductive carbon,” Wang explained. “Instead, we grew nanocrystals of iron oxide onto graphene, and nanocrystals of nickel hydroxide onto carbon nanotubes.”

This technique produced strong chemical bonding between the metal particles and the carbon nanomaterials, which had a dramatic effect on performance. “Coupling the nickel and iron particles to the carbon substrate allows electrical charges to move quickly between the electrodes and the outside circuit,” Dai said. “The result is an ultrafast version of the nickel-iron battery that’s capable of charging and discharging in seconds.”

The Stanford researchers created a 1-volt ‘graphene-enhanced’ nickel-iron prototype battery for experimentation in the lab. This battery can power a flashlight but the researchers are hoping to scale up so that the battery could be used for the electrical grid or transportation.

The lead author for the study is Hailiang Wang, a Stanford graduate student. Other co-authors of the study are postdoctoral scholars Yongye Liang and Yanguang Li, graduate student Ming Gong, and undergraduates Wesley Chang and Tyler Mefford also of Stanford; Jigang Zhou, Jian Wang and Tom Regier of Canadian Light Source, Inc.; and Fei Wei of Tsinghua University.

ETA: June 27, 2012: Here, by the way, is an electric vehicle powered by Edison’s battery circa 1910, downloaded from the Stanford University site (http://news.stanford.edu/news/2012/june/ultrafast-edison-battery-062612.html) and courtesy of the US National Park  Service.

To demonstrate the reliability of the Edison nickel-iron battery, drivers rode a battery-powered Bailey in a 1,000-mile endurance run in 1910. Courtesy: US National Park Service