Photovoltaic panels are still way too expensive for mass adoption.  One major reason is the wiring connecting the individual cells.  That plus the glass and the manufactured silicon cell materials pose expenses that limit the purchase economics to major subsidies and areas where weather risk is low or nonexistent.

Benjamin Wiley, an assistant professor of chemistry at Duke University is leading a team of chemists that have perfected a simple way to make tiny copper nanowires (CuNW) in quantity. The cheap conductors are small enough to be transparent, making them ideal for thin-film solar cells, flat-screen TVs and computer monitors, and flexible displays.  The team reported its findings online this week in Advanced Materials.

Wiley says the nanowires made of copper perform better than carbon nanotubes, and are much cheaper than silver nanowires.  The price of the materials used to synthesize 1 gram of CuNWs is $5.94, while $32.59 is needed for 1 gram of silver nanowires. The team’s paper reports it would take about $3.00 worth of CuNWs, less than half a gram, to coat 1 m² of glass.  This is a very different economic proposition.

Copper Nanowires. Click image for more info.

Currently indium tin oxide (ITO) is used as the transparent layer for the electrode in thin-film solar cells, the latest flat-panel TVs and computer screens producing images. ITO has drawbacks: it is brittle, making it unsuitable for flexible screens; its production process is inefficient; and it is expensive and becoming more so because of increasing demand.  Wind and hail would kill current photovoltaic panels by breaking the conductive layer if not the glass.  ITO works well, but coming up with a replacement is crucial.

Wiley says, “If we are going to have these ubiquitous electronics and solar cells we need to use materials that are abundant in the earth’s crust and don’t take much energy to extract.” He points out that there are very few materials that are known to be both transparent and conductive, which is why ITO is still being used despite its drawbacks.

That illustrates the importance of why Wiley’s new work showing that copper, which is a thousand times more abundant than indium, can be used to make a film of nanowires that is both transparent and conductive.

Silver nanowires also perform well as a transparent conductor, and Wiley contributed to a patent on the production of them as a graduate student. But silver, like indium, is rare and expensive. Other researchers have been trying to improve the performance of carbon nanotubes as a transparent conductor, but without much progress.

Wiley says, “The fact that copper nanowires are cheaper and work better makes them a very promising material to solve this problem.”

Wiley’s lab is the first to demonstrate that copper nanowires perform well as a transparent conductor. Other researchers have produced copper nanowires, but on a much smaller scale.  Wiley says the process will need to be scaled up for commercial use, and there are two other problems to solve as well: preventing the nanowires from clumping, which reduces transparency, and preventing the copper from oxidizing, which decreases conductivity. Once the clumping problem has been worked out, Wiley believes the conductivity of the copper nanowires will match that of silver nanowires and ITO.

Wiley and his students, PhD candidate Aaron Rathmell and undergraduate Stephen Bergin, grew the copper nanowires in a water-based solution. “By adding different chemicals to the solution, you can control the assembly of atoms into different nanostructures,” Wiley said. In this case, when the copper crystallizes, it first forms tiny “seeds,” and then a single nanowire sprouts from each seed. It’s a mechanism of crystal growth that has never been observed before.

Because the process is water-based, and because copper nanowires are flexible, Wiley thinks the nanowires could be coated from solution in a roll-to-roll process, like newspaper printing, which would be much more efficient than the ITO production process.

Wiley says, “We think that using a material that is a hundred times cheaper will be even more attractive to venture capitalists, electronic companies and solar companies who all need these transparent electrodes.”  A patent application for the process has been filed and Wiley expects to see copper nanowires in commercial use in the not-too-distant future. He notes that there is already investment financing available for the development of transparent conductors based on silver nanowires.

This is great news.  Solar panels send roof insurers into apoplexy because of the premium required to replace damaged panels taking a wide swath of the available area out of the productivity zone.  Lowering costs is critically important.  The other side also can benefit, more efficient display panels can cut the electrical energy needed to expand the human standard of living.  The Duke team’s work is much more important than a glance indicates.  The work should help in the orbital solar collector effort as well.


42 Comments so far

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