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Flexible silicon solar cell fabrics may soon become possible

06 December 2012

For the first time, a silicon-based optical fibre with solar cell capabilities has been developed that has been shown to be scalable to many meters in length.

A cross-sectional image of the new silicon-based optical fibre. Shown are the layers (labeled n+, i, and p+) that have been deposited inside the pore of the fibre (image credit: Badding lab, Penn State)
A cross-sectional image of the new silicon-based optical fibre. Shown are the layers (labeled n+, i, and p+) that have been deposited inside the pore of the fibre (image credit: Badding lab, Penn State)

The research opens the door to the possibility of weaving together solar cell silicon wires to create flexible, curved, or twisted solar fabrics. The findings by an international team of chemists, physicists, and engineers, led by John Badding, a professor of chemistry at Penn State University, will be posted by the journal Advanced Materials in an early online edition on 6 December 2012 and will be published on a future date in the journal's print edition.

The team's new findings build on earlier work addressing the challenge of merging optical fibres with electronic chips -- silicon-based integrated circuits that serve as the building blocks for most semiconductor electronic devices such as solar cells, computers, and cell phones.

Rather than merge a flat chip with a round optical fibre, the team found a way to build a new kind of optical fibre, which is thinner than the width of a human hair, with its own integrated electronic component, thereby bypassing the need to integrate fibre-optics with chips. To do this, they used high-pressure chemistry techniques to deposit semiconducting materials directly, layer by layer, into tiny holes in optical fibres.

Now, in their new research, the team members have used the same high-pressure chemistry techniques to make a fibre out of crystalline silicon semiconductor materials that can function as a solar cell.

"Our goal is to extend high-performance electronic and solar cell function to longer lengths and to more flexible forms. We already have made meters-long fibres but, in principle, our team's new method could be used to create bendable silicon solar cell fibres of over 10 meters in length," Badding said.

"Long, fibre-based solar cells give us the potential to do something we couldn't really do before: We can take the silicon fibres and weave them together into a fabric with a wide range of applications such as power generation, battery charging, chemical sensing, and biomedical devices."

Badding explained that one of the major limitations of portable electronics such as smart phones and iPads is short battery life. Solar-boosted batteries could help solve this problem. "A solar cell is usually made from a glass or plastic substrate onto which hydrogenated amorphous silicon has been grown," Badding explained.

"Such a solar cell is created using an expensive piece of equipment called a PECVD reactor and the end result is something flat with little flexibility. But woven, fibre-based solar cells would be lightweight, flexible configurations that are portable, foldable, and even wearable." This material could then be connected to electronic devices to power them and charge their batteries. "The military especially is interested in designing wearable power sources for soldiers in the field," Badding added.

The team members believe that another advantage of flexibility in solar cell materials is the possibility of collecting light energy at various angles. "A typical solar cell has only one flat surface," Badding said. "But a flexible, curved solar cell fabric would not be as dependent upon where the light is coming from or where the sun is in the horizon and the time of day."

Pier J A Sazio of the University of Southampton and one of the team's leaders added, "Another intriguing property of these silicon-fibre devices is that as they are so compact, they can have a very fast response to visible laser light. In fact, we fabricated fibre-based photo-detectors with a bandwidth of over 1.8 GHz."

The research was funded by the National Science Foundation, Penn State's Materials Research Institute Nano Fabrication Network, and the United Kingdom's Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

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