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Less Expensive Solar Power Now on the Horizon

By Erik Derr staff@sciencetimes.com | Jul 08, 2014 10:59 PM EDT

An era of more affordable solar panels is shining brighter, thanks to new research out of the University of Toronto.

A team from the school's Edward S. Rogers Sr. Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering has designed and successfully tested a new type of solar-sensitive nanoparticle superior to materials currently used in the solar-power industry.

Colloidal quantum dots, as they're called, are a new form of solid, stable nanoparticles that could be used to manufacture cheaper, more flexible solar cells, along with next-generation gas sensors, infrared lasers, infrared light emitting diodes -- and more.

Findings of the new work, led by post-doctoral researcher Zhijun Ning and professor Ted Sargent, have been published in the journal Nature Materials.

"This is a material innovation, that's the first part, and with this new material we can build new device structures," said Ning in a news release. "The field has moved fast, and keeps moving fast, but we need to work toward bringing performance to commercially compelling levels."

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Collecting sunlight using colloidal quantum dots requires the presence of two semiconductor types: n-types, which are rich in electrons, and p-types, which are poor in electrons.

But, when exposed to air, n-type materials typically bind to oxygen atoms, giving up their electrons to become p-type particles.

Therefore, Ning's team developed new colloidal quantum dot n-type material able to resist binding with oxygen.

The resulting stable layers of n- and p-type materials not only boost the efficiency of light absorption in solar panels, but enables optoelectronic devices -- those that use light as an energy source.

The researchers said the new hybrid n- and p-type material achieved up to 8 percent in solar power conversion efficiency.

That means the little dots, which could be mixed into inks and paint and then applied to thin, flexible surfaces, such as roofing shingles, lowering the cost of solar power significantly -- and making the alternate energy technology much more accessible for millions of people.

The new discovery could also provide for more advanced satellites, remote controllers, orbiting communication arrays and pollution detectors.

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