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Spaghetti Junction – The Route towards Plastic Solar Panels?

Tidying the spaghetti-like mess in plastic solar panels could give them the edge on their silicon cousins.

Certain types of plastic conduct electricity. They lie at the heart of recent research aiming to make cheaper, more flexible solar panels that could simply be sprayed onto surfaces. My research looks at the internal structures of these plastic solar panels.

The real deal - schematic of how the actual device should look

Shrink down a bowl of spaghetti and meatballs, and you’ve got close to the inside of a plastic solar panel. In this case, though, the spaghetti strands and meatballs are a single molecule each. At the moment, the analogy extends further – the pasta’s usually a mess. I want to see what happens if we carefully arrange the ingredients to give a well-ordered, repeating structure.

The internal structure is important, because if the solar panel is working well it is full of electric traffic. Charges are flowing one way in the spaghetti-like part (the ‘polymer’) and in the opposite direction in the meatballs (‘fullerenes’), meaning you want the two parts to be separate highways to quickly get the charges out of the device and give your electric current. However, light absorbed by the device generates charges only where the polymer touches the fullerenes, meaning you also want as much contact as possible between the two parts to generate as many charges as possible. Finding a way to get lots of contact without disrupting the transport network is a challenge.

The gyroid spaghetti, as seen under an electron microscope
I’m addressing this challenge by making devices with a ‘gyroid’ structure. Here, bundles of spaghetti wrap around connected clumps of meatballs in a pattern that repeats throughout the device. Crucially, we can get plastics to form a gyroid structure themselves.

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve already made working plastic solar panels with gyroid structure, but now I want to see how well the devices can work, learn what fabrication steps are important for good performance, and use gyroid-structured devices to learn more about plastic solar panels in general.

Harry Beeson

NanoDTC PhD Student Cohort 2011

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