When Solyndra filed for bankruptcy earlier this week, it brought to the national public’s attention the reality that a major hurdle for solar energy panel companies outside of China, is the high cost of manufacturing competing solar panels.  Like the lost federal investment in Solyndra, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts similarly lost a substantial part of its investment in Evergreen Solar, which also failed earlier this year.  Thankfully, various research developments using nanotechnology hope to bring down the cost of manufacture, and at the same time, increase the efficiency of solar cells.

A team led by Chain-Shu Hsu at the National Chalo Tung University and Yuh-Lin Wang at Academia Sinica in Taiwan developed a new approach using fullerene nanorods to increase the efficiency of polymer-based solar cells. “By using a nano-casting process, they produced a layer of vertically oriented nanorods from a cross-linking polymeric fullerene material. The spaces between the rods were filled with a mixture made from a photoactive polymer and a fullerene. This layer ensures effective charge separatation, and the interpenetration of the fullerene nanorods ensures ordered – and thus effective – charge transport. Solar cells made with this novel combined photolayer are stable and achieve amazingly high performance.”

A different team of international scientists recently explained in the journal AIP Advances, that silicon nanowires that were randomly grown can increase power-generating capabilities of solar cells by capturing light waves and sunlight from different angles. “The nanowires that are sheathed in a silicon oxide shell function as an antireflective coating over the normally shimmering silicon wafer. The scraggly tangle traps color light ranging between red and violet and the haphazard arrangement of the nanowires allows constant absorption of light by the coating even though the angle of the sun’s rays keep varying through the day.” The research team believes that this cost-effective process can be used for large-production operations.

And on domestic soil, the National Science Foundation is set to announcement a new grant for the University of Massachusetts at Amherst’s Center for Hierarchical Manufacturing (the “Center”).

One project that the Center is focusing on is applying nanotechnology to the creation of flexible electronics in solar panels. Joshua A. Chamot, a spokesman for the National Science Foundation commented, “[l]ook at a solar panel today and it’s made of tiny crystals visible to the naked eye. But UMass’ work may result in the manufacture of one pure sheet of that material. Think about how efficient that would be…”