Tag Archives: University of Colorado Boulder

Solar cells and ‘tinkertoys’

A Nov. 3, 2014 news item on Nanowerk features a project researchers hope will improve photovoltaic efficiency and make solar cells competitive with other sources of energy,

 Researchers at Sandia National Laboratories have received a $1.2 million award from the U.S. Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative to develop a technique that they believe will significantly improve the efficiencies of photovoltaic materials and help make solar electricity cost-competitive with other sources of energy.

The work builds on Sandia’s recent successes with metal-organic framework (MOF) materials by combining them with dye-sensitized solar cells (DSSC).

“A lot of people are working with DSSCs, but we think our expertise with MOFs gives us a tool that others don’t have,” said Sandia’s Erik Spoerke, a materials scientist with a long history of solar cell exploration at the labs.

A Nov. 3, 2014 Sandia National Laboratories news release, which originated the news item, describes the project and the technology in more detail,

Sandia’s project is funded through SunShot’s Next Generation Photovoltaic Technologies III program, which sponsors projects that apply promising basic materials science that has been proven at the materials properties level to demonstrate photovoltaic conversion improvements to address or exceed SunShot goals.

The SunShot Initiative is a collaborative national effort that aggressively drives innovation with the aim of making solar energy fully cost-competitive with traditional energy sources before the end of the decade. Through SunShot, the Energy Department supports efforts by private companies, universities and national laboratories to drive down the cost of solar electricity to 6 cents per kilowatt-hour.

DSSCs provide basis for future advancements in solar electricity production

Dye-sensitized solar cells, invented in the 1980s, use dyes designed to efficiently absorb light in the solar spectrum. The dye is mated with a semiconductor, typically titanium dioxide, that facilitates conversion of the energy in the optically excited dye into usable electrical current.

DSSCs are considered a significant advancement in photovoltaic technology since they separate the various processes of generating current from a solar cell. Michael Grätzel, a professor at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland, was awarded the 2010 Millennium Technology Prize for inventing the first high-efficiency DSSC.

“If you don’t have everything in the DSSC dependent on everything else, it’s a lot easier to optimize your photovoltaic device in the most flexible and effective way,” explained Sandia senior scientist Mark Allendorf. DSSCs, for example, can capture more of the sun’s energy than silicon-based solar cells by using varied or multiple dyes and also can use different molecular systems, Allendorf said.

“It becomes almost modular in terms of the cell’s components, all of which contribute to making electricity out of sunlight more efficiently,” said Spoerke.

MOFs’ structure, versatility and porosity help overcome DSSC limitations

Though a source of optimism for the solar research community, DSSCs possess certain challenges that the Sandia research team thinks can be overcome by combining them with MOFs.

Allendorf said researchers hope to use the ordered structure and versatile chemistry of MOFs to help the dyes in DSSCs absorb more solar light, which he says is a fundamental limit on their efficiency.

“Our hypothesis is that we can put a thin layer of MOF on top of the titanium dioxide, thus enabling us to order the dye in exactly the way we want it,” Allendorf explained. That, he said, should avoid the efficiency-decreasing problem of dye aggregation, since the dye would then be locked into the MOF’s crystalline structure.

MOFs are highly-ordered materials that also offer high levels of porosity, said Allendorf, a MOF expert and 29-year veteran of Sandia. He calls the materials “Tinkertoys for chemists” because of the ease with which new structures can be envisioned and assembled. [emphasis mine]

Allendorf said the unique porosity of MOFs will allow researchers to add a second dye, placed into the pores of the MOF, that will cover additional parts of the solar spectrum that weren’t covered with the initial dye. Finally, he and Spoerke are convinced that MOFs can help improve the overall electron charge and flow of the solar cell, which currently faces instability issues.

“Essentially, we believe MOFs can help to more effectively organize the electronic and nano-structure of the molecules in the solar cell,” said Spoerke. “This can go a long way toward improving the efficiency and stability of these assembled devices.”

In addition to the Sandia team, the project includes researchers at the University of Colorado-Boulder, particularly Steve George, an expert in a thin film technology known as atomic layer deposition.

The technique, said Spoerke, is important in that it offers a pathway for highly controlled materials chemistry with potentially low-cost manufacturing of the DSSC/MOF process.

“With the combination of MOFs, dye-sensitized solar cells and atomic layer deposition, we think we can figure out how to control all of the key cell interfaces and material elements in a way that’s never been done before,” said Spoerke. “That’s what makes this project exciting.”

Here’s a picture showing an early Tinkertoy set,

Original Tinkertoy, Giant Engineer #155. Questor Education Products Co., c.1950 [downloaded from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tinkertoy#mediaviewer/File:Tinkertoy_300126232168.JPG]

Original Tinkertoy, Giant Engineer #155. Questor Education Products Co., c.1950 [downloaded from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tinkertoy#mediaviewer/File:Tinkertoy_300126232168.JPG]

The Tinkertoy entry on Wikipedia has this,

The Tinkertoy Construction Set is a toy construction set for children. It was created in 1914—six years after the Frank Hornby’s Meccano sets—by Charles H. Pajeau and Robert Pettit and Gordon Tinker in Evanston, Illinois. Pajeau, a stonemason, designed the toy after seeing children play with sticks and empty spools of thread. He and Pettit set out to market a toy that would allow and inspire children to use their imaginations. At first, this did not go well, but after a year or two over a million were sold.

Shrinky Dinks, tinkertoys, Lego have all been mentioned here in conjunction with lab work. I’m always delighted to see scientists working with or using children’s toys as inspiration of one type or another.

Swarming robot droplets

The robot droplets are a bit bigger than you might expect, the size of ping pong balls, but the idea is intriguing and for those who’ve read Michael Crichton’s book, Prey, it could seem quite disturbing (from the University of Colorado Boulder multimedia page for ‘tiny robots’),

For anyone unfamiliar with Crichton’s Prey, here’s an excerpt from the Wikipedia entry about the book which features nanobots operating as a swarm,

… As a result, hazardous elements such as the assemblers, the bacteria, and the nanobots were blown into the desert, evolving and eventually forming autonomous swarms. These swarms appear to be solar-powered and self-sufficient, reproducing and evolving rapidly. The swarms exhibit predatory behavior, attacking and killing animals in the wild, using code that Jack himself worked on. Most alarmingly, the swarms seem to possess rudimentary intelligence, the ability to quickly learn and to innovate. The swarms tend to wander around the fab plant during the day but quickly leave when strong winds blow or night falls.

The Dec. 14, 2012 posting by Alan on the Science Business website describes,

A computer science lab at University of Colorado in Boulder is building a miniature, limited-function robot designed to work in a swarm of similar devices. Computer science professor Nikolaus Correll and colleagues are building these small devices that they call droplets as building blocks for increasingly complex systems.

A University of Colorado Boulder Dec. 14, 2012 news release provides more details,

Correll and his computer science research team, including research associate Dustin Reishus and professional research assistant Nick Farrow, have developed a basic robotic building block, which he hopes to reproduce in large quantities to develop increasingly complex systems.

Recently the team created a swarm of 20 robots, each the size of a pingpong ball, which they call “droplets.” When the droplets swarm together, Correll said, they form a “liquid that thinks.”

To accelerate the pace of innovation, he has created a lab where students can explore and develop new applications of robotics with basic, inexpensive tools.

Similar to the fictional “nanomorphs” depicted in the “Terminator” films, large swarms of intelligent robotic devices could be used for a range of tasks. Swarms of robots could be unleashed to contain an oil spill or to self-assemble into a piece of hardware after being launched separately into space, Correll said.

Correll plans to use the droplets to demonstrate self-assembly and swarm-intelligent behaviors such as pattern recognition, sensor-based motion and adaptive shape change. These behaviors could then be transferred to large swarms for water- or air-based tasks.

Correll hopes to create a design methodology for aggregating the droplets into more complex behaviors such as assembling parts of a large space telescope or an aircraft.

There’s also talk about creating gardens in space,

He [Correll] also is continuing work on robotic garden technology he developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2009. Correll has been working with Joseph Tanner in CU-Boulder’s aerospace engineering sciences department to further develop the technology, involving autonomous sensors and robots that can tend gardens, in conjunction with a model of a long-term space habitat being built by students.

Correll says there is virtually no limit to what might be created through distributed intelligence systems.

“Every living organism is made from a swarm of collaborating cells,” he said. “Perhaps some day, our swarms will colonize space where they will assemble habitats and lush gardens for future space explorers.”

The scientists don’t seem to harbour any trepidations, I guess they’re leaving that to the writers.