Courtesy Pacific Cove Development

As solar storage becomes easier to use and more affordable, it opens the opportunity to leverage solar. Now, a new breakthrough with semiconductors could put solar into new parts of design, making it a much more inexpensive part of renewable projects.

In an advance that could push cheap, ubiquitous solar power closer to reality, University of Michigan researchers have found a way to coax electrons to travel much further than was previously thought possible in the materials often used for organic solar cells and other organic semiconductors.

“For years, people had treated the poor conductivity of organics as an unavoidable fact, and this shows that that’s not always the case,” said Stephen Forrest, the Peter A. Franken Distinguished University Professor of Engineering and Paul G. Goebel Professor of Engineering at U-M, who led the research.

Unlike the inorganic solar cells widely used today, organics can be made of inexpensive, flexible carbon-based materials like plastic. Manufacturers could churn out rolls of them in a variety of colors and configurations, to be laminated unobtrusively into almost any surface. Organics’ notoriously poor conductivity, however, has slowed research. Forrest believes this discovery could change the game. The findings are detailed in a paper published online January 17, 2018 in the journal Nature.

The team showed that a thin layer of fullerene molecules—the curious round carbon molecules also called Buckyballs—can enable electrons to travel up to several centimeters from the point where they’re knocked loose by a photon. That’s a dramatic increase; in today’s organic cells, electrons can travel only a few hundred nanometers or less.

Read More