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Fab Method Shows Promise for Solar-Powered Phones

15 August 2014

A way to control molecular assembly shows promise for producing organic photovoltaics in enough quantity to replace phone batteries as the power source.

Researchers at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst claim their method can yield enough flexible solar power to save more than 1,500 megawatts of consumed power from some 300 million users per year.

The team of researchers—including materials chemists, polymer scientists and device physicist—claim their new techniques successfully control molecular assembly and avoid toxic solvents by using a water-based system.

"Our group discovered a way to use sphere packing to get all sorts of materials to behave themselves in a water solution before they are sprayed onto surfaces in thin layers and assembled into a module," said Paul Lahti, a materials chemist, who likened the benefits to the construction industry’s prefabricated building units.

"We are pre-assembling some basic building blocks with a few predictable characteristics, which are then available to build your complex device," Lahti said.

While the device needs to be hooked up to fit it out for what the device needs to do, many parts of the device are pre-assembled. The new method should reduce the trial-and-error searches for materials to make electronic devices. "The old way can take years," Lahti said.

"Another of our main objectives is to make something that can be scaled up from nano- to mesoscale, and our method does that," Lahti added. "It is also much more ecologically friendly because we use water instead of dangerous solvents in the process."

The next steps by the researchers are to increase power conversion efficiency and to make the devices on flexible substrates. The initial work was done on glass, with the ultimate goal having flexible materials and producing the materials using roll-to-roll manufacturing using water. Reaching 5 percent power conversion efficiency would justify the investment for making small, flexible solar panels to power devices such as smart phones, according to the researchers.

In the new method, similar sized and charged nanoparticles form a building block, then layers of electrical circuits are sprayed atop each other using an artist's airbrush to create a solar-powered device. Pre-formed structures at nanoscale in turn form a known structure assembled at the meso scale, from which one can make a device.

"Before, you just hoped your two components in solution would form the right mesostructure, but with this technique we can direct it to that end," Lathi said.

The research work was supported by the U.S. DOE's Office of Basic Energy Sciences, and is detailed in Nano Letters.

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