Kaul awarded $474K grant from Navy to develop flexible, printed solar cells

UNT professor Anupama Kaul straddles the line between materials science and electrical engineering, which puts her in the perfect place to develop new solar cell technology for the Office of Naval Research under the Department of Defense.

Kaul who directs the Nanoscale Materials and Devices Lab  and the PACCAR Technology Institute intends to utilize emerging perovskite materials that are extremely efficient at absorbing incoming light. The core component of photovoltaic systems is a device called a solar cell.  The rigid solar cells many of us are familiar with in commercial solar panels often rely on the highly ordered crystalline structure of materials such as silicon to capture light and convert this to electricity. Many perovskites used in solar cell research are made with solutions, and yet, remarkably, the solution processed materials are still highly absorbing to incoming light. The main advantage of solution processing is that it greatly reduces manufacturing costs of solar cells compared to the sophisticated and expensive infrastructure needed to make them with crystalline materials. Given that there is high potential to reduce manufacturing costs using scalable solution processing routes, it makes perovskites a key contender for realizing low-cost, high-efficiency solar cells.  

Although perovskites are highly efficient at converting sun’s light to electricity, their stability and robust operation over time at ambient conditions has been a major challenge in recent years.

“In this ONR sponsored effort, we will be working on several ways to overcome the stability issues of solution-processed perovskite materials by engineering the composition of our conventional three-dimensional perovskites and their close cousin, the two-dimensional perovskites,” Kaul said. “We will also be considering other ways to block water molecules from accessing the hydrophilic or water-loving sites in the perovskites molecules through interface engineering.”  

Kaul said another goal of this project is to take our special photovoltaic ink and additively manufacture the solar cells with ink-jet printing on flexible, transparent and light-weight substrates.

“The Holy Grail in solar cell research is to use roll-to-roll manufacturing with flexible substrates to make these structures over large production scales cheaply with high solar cell performance efficiencies, something that ultimately will have a high payoff for the Navy in field operations,” she said. “While our research focuses on the military application of this technology, flexible solar panels from perovskites could be used wherever power generation is needed.”

Flexible solar cells can be molded to conform to any surface such as buildings, windows, textiles for wearables and even the roof of a vehicle to provide power. 

“That is the ultimate vision but along the way we are bound to uncover new, exciting science toward this pursuit.  We hope to use this new knowledge to further technological innovations, given that one of the grand challenges we face as a society is the need for low-cost, clean energy sources that don’t have a detrimental impact on our environment,” Kaul said. “And for the Navy, this technology could lead to flexible, low-cost solar cells molded to wings, hulls and fuselages, for airborne and ocean-going drones.”

Kaul’s $474,000 grant through the Office of Naval Research is a three-year grant that has the potential to be extended for an additional two years toward furthering the development of this technology.