The Lab Breakthroughs series is a collection of digital features accompanied by a Q&A from a lead researcher showcasing how innovation at National Labs have shaped our world, and how they are defining the technology of the future. The series originally appeared at Energy.gov.
Sandia National Lab semiconductor engineer Gregory Nielson and postdoctoral appointee Jose Luis Cruz-Campa recently took some time to discuss their breakthrough in photovoltaic technology. Their small, flexible photovoltaics are highly efficient and cost effective – the perfect combination for a game-changing technology.
Q: In layman’s terms, what makes the breakthrough so exciting in terms of meeting America’s energy needs?
JLC: Solar energy is the only energy source that can meet the world’s energy needs in a sustainable manner. The problem with solar energy is that it is more expensive than electricity coming from other sources that currently supply the grid (coal, natural gas, existing nuclear, etc.).
This new approach to solar power uses the same tools and techniques as the microsystems industry, which includes integrated circuits, microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), LEDs, and other technologies. By taking advantage of the microsystems industry, we are able to use an existing manufacturing base along with existing manufacturing tools and an entire support industry that is already in place.
Furthermore, the benefits resulting from the microscale nature of the cells are very compelling. The small size of the cells allows flexible and conformal PV in a way that has not been possible before. Finally, our externally validated cost estimates indicate that this approach has the potential to make solar energy cost competitive with current sources of grid power. This technology could enable the powering of anything by simply exposing it to light.
Q: Would it be more likely for these small, flexible photovoltaics to meet the needs of industry (in solar arrays) or individuals (such as in consumer goods, like clothing, hiking gear, military equipment, etc.)?
JLC: Both are compelling applications of the technology. The small size and high configurability of the cells enables the creation of two new classes of products: An inexpensive, light weight, and high efficiency solar panel to be used in utility- or commercial-scale power generation.
Q: What’s the next step for getting this innovation out into industry?
Gregory Nielsen: We need to answer a few more key questions before the technology is ready for commercialization. We are making rapid progress right now and hope to be ready to start moving at least some portions of the technology into industry soon. Getting this technology commercialized is our ultimate metric of success for this project.
Q: What affect do you anticipate the introduction of MEPVs to have on the solar power industry?
GN: By making solar power less expensive and more capable, the solar power industry should see unprecedented growth. Solar will become the first choice for any application that requires energy and will be the standard energy source at all levels of usage from the utility grid to houses, vehicles, and handheld electronics. The potential of this technology is immense, not only for the solar power industry but for the world. If you can make solar power the least expensive form of energy, many of the problems that the world faces (access to clean water, food production, transportation, environmental pollution, etc.) could be solved.
Q: What about your facilities specific resources made it the right place to develop this technology?
JLC: Sandia is uniquely positioned to develop this technology. It has the right combination of talent, including experts in micro- and nano-fabrication and design, semiconductor device physics, solar cell characterization, optical design, and systems engineering.
The facilities at Sandia have been key. Sandia’s “MESA” micro- and nano-fabrication facility provides a truly unique and world-class semiconductor R&D facility that allows us to work in silicon fabrication right along with compound semiconductors which is very rare but enabling for this technology.
In addition, Sandia’s Photovoltaic System Evaluation Laboratory has provided critical support in evaluating this technology. The project has also benefited from forward thinking management as well as responsive administrative and legal personnel.