Toronto’s Illan Kramer, Inventor of Spray-on Solar
Illan Kramer, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Toronto, and IBM Canada’s Research and Development Center has invented a new way to spray solar cells onto flexible surfaces using minuscule light-sensitive materials known as colloidal quantum dots (CQDs)—a major step toward making spray-on solar cells easy and cheap to manufacture.
“My dream is that one day you’ll have two technicians with Ghostbusters backpacks come to your house and spray your roof,” says Kramer.
Solar-sensitive CQDs printed onto a flexible film could be used to coat all kinds of weirdly shaped surfaces, from patio furniture to an airplane’s wing. A surface the size of your car’s roof wrapped with CQD-coated film would produce enough energy to power three 100-Watt light bulbs—or 24 compact fluorescents.
He calls his system sprayLD, a play on the manufacturing process called ALD, short for atomic layer deposition, in which materials are laid down on a surface one atom-thickness at a time.
A colloidal quantum dot solar cell is fabricated by spray coating under ambient conditions. By developing a room temperature spray coating technique and implementing a fully automated process with near monolayer control—an approach termed as sprayLD—an electronic defect is eliminated resulting in solar cell performance and statistical distribution superior to prior batch-processed methods along with hero performance of 8.1%.
$1,000 to build sprayLD
The approach requires a way to produce inexpensive, spray-paintable solar cells.
“We started by buying a few art store airbrushes,” Kramer says, “and it kind of grew from there.”
The scientists stopped by an art store near the university and purchased a few airbrushes for a little over $100. They also bought three spray nozzles, including one fine-mist type from a vendor who mostly services the steel mill industry.
The device they created, which looks like something constructed during a Junkyard Wars episode, cost a little less than $1,000 to build — solar cells not included.
Next, the scientists want to build a bigger version of the sprayLD device to test whether increased size will affect its performance. They also need to improve the efficiency of the solar cell material. The performance benchmark for solar energy is typically a product that can convert 10 per cent of the sun’s energy into electrical energy. They need to increase from 8.1%.
Advanced Materials – Efficient Spray-Coated Colloidal Quantum Dot Solar Cells
Until now, it was only possible to incorporate light-sensitive CQDs onto surfaces through batch processing—an inefficient, slow and expensive assembly-line approach to chemical coating. SprayLD blasts a liquid containing CQDs directly onto flexible surfaces, such as film or plastic, like printing a newspaper by applying ink onto a roll of paper. This roll-to-roll coating method makes incorporating solar cells into existing manufacturing processes much simpler. In two recent papers in the journals Advanced Materials and Applied Physics Letters, Kramer showed that the sprayLD method can be used on flexible materials without any major loss in solar-cell efficiency.
Kramer built his sprayLD device using parts that are readily available and rather affordable—he sourced a spray nozzle used in steel mills to cool steel with a fine mist of water, and a few regular air brushes from an art store.
“This is something you can build in a Junkyard Wars fashion, which is basically how we did it,” said Kramer. “We think of this as a no-compromise solution for shifting from batch processing to roll-to-roll.”
“As quantum dot solar technology advances rapidly in performance, it’s important to determine how to scale them and make this new class of solar technologies manufacturable,” said Professor Ted Sargent (ECE), vice dean, research in the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering at University of Toronto and Kramer’s supervisor. “We were thrilled when this attractively manufacturable spray-coating process also led to superior performance devices showing improved control and purity.”
In a third paper in the journal ACS Nano, Kramer and his colleagues used a Blue Gene/Q supercomputer owned by the Southern Ontario Smart Computing Innovation Platform (SOSCIP) to model how and why the sprayed CQDs perform just as well as—and in some cases better than—their batch-processed counterparts. SOSCIP is an R&D consortium consisting of 11 southern Ontario universities and the IBM Canada Research and Development Centre. This work was supported by the IBM Canada Research and Development Centre, and by King Abdullah University of Science and Technology.