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Nanomaterials October 2018 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Ivona Bradley

QD Solar Cells

Why is this topic significant?

Quantum-dot solar-cell development is much more immature than development of other third-generation solar-cell areas, but matching QD solar cells' stability to their efficiency is enabling scientists to make inroads in the field.

Description

Although researchers at the US Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory set an efficiency record of 13.4% for a quantum-dot (QD) solar cell incorporating particles of perovskite-structured cesium lead triiodide in 2017, the long-term stability and the durability of QD solar cells still present major barriers to their commercialization. In August 2018, researchers at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) revealed a method to produce stable and efficient lead-sulfide-based colloidal-QD solar cells. The method involves the use of an amorphous organic layer to block oxygen and water permeation through the lead-sulfide layer of the QD solar cells. Molecular-dynamics-based theoretical studies reveal that the amorphous organic layer acts as an efficient coating that makes the lead-sulfide layer of the colloidal QDs unreactive. The organic layer exhibits electrical properties that enable the QD solar cells to convert power efficiently. The solar cell exhibits an 11.7% high-power conversion and retains more than 90% of its initial performance one year after storage under ambient conditions.

Implications

The KAIST technology represents a significant advance for QD solar cells and is another data point charting the growing potential of this technology. Numerous potential applications for the KAIST QD solar cells exist. For example, these solar cells could serve as power sources for cell phones, handheld devices, notebook computers, and other battery-driven electronic devices. The technology could also enable disposable solar-powered displays on packaging, power for radio-frequency-identification tags and sensor networks, and lightweight, roll-up, portable-power sources for remote locations. Other applications could also include photovoltaic panels that power electric motors in vehicles and photovoltaic roofing tiles for homes.

Impacts/Disruptions

Further improvements in QDs are necessary before widespread commercialization can take place. Currently, QD solar cells cannot compete with today's advanced silicon solar-photovoltaic technologies, such as single-crystal silicon systems that can achieve lab-cell efficiencies of nearly 26%. Such efficiencies are the result of decades of research, making comparison with the relatively young field of QD solar cells difficult. Although, the first QD solar cells to reach commercial markets are more likely to appear in specific, niche applications, the advances reported by the KAIST scientists are indicative of the fast pace of development in the solar industry and highlight the threat that this means of power generation poses to alternative power sources, such as fossil fuels and other renewables.

A potential barrier to the commercialization of inorganic QD solar cells—such as the KAIST solar cells—is the use of toxic lead. Legislation governing the use of lead in many applications is becoming more stringent. Similarly, the long-term environmental and health implications of nanomaterials, such as QDs, are under debate among researchers. Technologies that use nanomaterials are likely to face disruption once more stringent regulations governing the use of nanomaterials materialize.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 5 Years to 10 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Solar cells, photovoltaics, displays, nanoelectronics

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

A Framework to Improve Nanoparticle Manufacturing

By Susan Leiby
Leiby is a principal consultant with Strategic Business Insights.

Why is this topic significant?

Nanoparticle heterogeneity is a widespread manufacturing challenge that increases costs and limits the commercialization of novel nanotechnologies. Taking a broader and more cooperative approach to address the issue could help the entire nanomaterials industry to advance faster.

Description

The US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) recently led a survey addressing a critical manufacturing quality-control issue: nanoparticle heterogeneity. Variations in nanoparticle characteristics, such as size and shape, arise during production and propagate through subsequent steps to end products, which can have significant impacts on the physical, chemical, and biological properties of the nanoparticles. The researchers approached the issue from a holistic-systems-level point of view and surveyed three broad areas of nanoparticle manufacturing in liquids.

  • Recent advances that could minimize heterogeneity or its consequences, taking into account production constraints such as scale and safety and using a general model of six primary manufacturing processes: synthesis, stabilization, functionalization, purification, characterization, and integration
  • Challenges in transferring nanoparticle technologies from the lab to the market—in particular, manufacturing issues that can result in lost capital
  • Manufacturing issues across overlapping application arenas, including nanocomposite materials, health care, electronics and photonics, and energy and the environment.

To improve manufacturing outcomes, NIST advocates that nanoparticle researchers, manufacturers, and administrators take a broader view and address issues collectively to facilitate knowledge transfer and best practices across disciplines. The survey results appeared in Applied Nano Materials.

Implications

The development of cost-effective manufacturing processes with reproducible and predictable product characteristics is a key factor in enabling the growth of nanomaterials markets. For example, an obstacle to the commercial development of carbon-nanotube (CNT) products has been the difficulty of synthesizing CNTs with high purity, high yield, and uniform dimensions (see the August 2018 Viewpoints). CNT heterogeneity complicates manufacturing and increases costs by requiring additional processing after synthesis for purification and characterization before the nanomaterials can see use in high-value products such as electronics devices. The NIST survey is one of the first efforts to examine the issue systematically across various nanoparticle materials and applications. The survey results and recommendations may help many companies that develop any type of nanomaterials—not just nanoparticles—avoid costly and redundant development efforts by uncovering potential solutions that already exist.

Impacts/Disruptions

Nanoparticle technologies have potential to transform many materials and products by adding unique capabilities. The NIST survey reveals opportunities to increase the likelihood that new nanoparticles can scale up from the lab to commercial markets with greater efficiency and lower capital and time requirements than nanoparticles have done previously. The survey itself is an example of a collaborative multidisciplinary effort that does not generate intellectual property or profit directly but that could ultimately accelerate the learning curve, reduce costs, and increase profitability for the entire nanomaterials industry.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium to High

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: Now to 5 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Health care, electronics, energy, materials, consumer products, military, transportation

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: