Nanotechnology set to make solar panels cheaper

In a cellar at Complutense University of Madrid, Miguel García Tecedor and Felix del Prado Hurtado are studying a series of microscope images of nanomaterials.

The two Spanish PhD students took part in a joint Spanish-Norwegian research project with a view to using nanotechnology to develop efficient and cheap materials for use in solar panels and batteries.

The goal was to find replacements for indium tin oxide, a metal which is both expensive and difficult to get hold of, but which is used extensively in energy production and storage, as well as in numerous other areas.

Replaces rare earth metals

'There is still a lot of work to be done, but the results have been very encouraging so far,' says García, who together with Del Prado and a third PhD student have spent several months in Norway at the Institute for Energy Technology (IFE) in connection with the project. 

students and researcher

The two project coordinators, Bianchi Méndez (second from right) and Ana Cremades, with the two PhD students Miguel García Tecedor (left) and Felix del Prado Hurtado, at Complutense University of Madrid. Photo: Christopher Björk/SIU.

The research is part of a big European initiative to reduce dependence on so-called rare earth metals: 17 elements that are used in the production of a wide number of technological devices we use on a daily basis. China accounts for over 90 per cent of the world's production of rare earth metals, and, in effect, controls the price and supply of indium and the other elements.

The project, known as SUSOX, was awarded almost EUR 80,000 from the EEA Grants in 2013.

Tin, titanium and gallium oxides, like indium, are so-called transparent semiconductors, i.e. light passes through them and they have good electrical conductance. However, scientists have added impurities to their crystal structure, so-called 'doping', to give them the same properties as indium.

Worked in turn

The project has run over 18 months, and the two institutions have worked in turn on the material. 

'At Complutense, we have added dopants in the laboratory, and have then studied the materials' new properties under different types of microscopes,' says Assistant Professor Ana Cremades, one of the two project coordinators.

At IFE in Norway, they have created theoretical models to study how the different types of impurities affect the properties of the materials. Back in Madrid, the team has then developed new, improved combinations. Finally, the most promising combinations of materials have been tested in batteries and solar panels in Norway.

This division of labour enables both institutions to concentrate on what they do best. Complutense University has expertise in developing composite nanomaterials based on these elements, while IFE has more expertise in the theoretical modelling of materials and developing technology for solar panels and lithium-ion batteries.

Unique insight

According to Professor Bianchi Méndez, the other project coordinator in Madrid, the Spanish students who went on the exchange to Norway gained a unique insight into how their experiments can be used in the real world. During their stay in Norway, Del Prado worked on developing batteries, while García built part of a solar panel.

'Here in Madrid, we develop the materials, but we're not involved in the final testing, so we really don't know how they’ll work. We had to go to Norway to see what happens during the final stage,' says García. 

Another advantage: Foreign stays qualify the candidates for a European PhD, an honorary title at Spanish universities that shows that a student has carried out and defended parts of his/her thesis in a language other than Spanish.

'This has been a very rewarding experience for our students,' says Méndez.

Commercial potential

The project has also generated other results. The group is now set to apply for a joint patent based on the experiments involving materials for solar panels, which they believe can be used in commercial products. Two private enterprises in Norway have already expressed an interest in the technology,' says Smagul Karazhanov, Senior Scientist at IFE, who led the Norwegian part of the project.

'We are also planning to register a patent based on the lithium-ion battery experiments.'

The SUSOX project has now been formally concluded, but Cremades, Méndez and Karazhanov have started looking for other sources of funding in order to continue the joint project.

FACTS, The EEA Grants:

The EEA Grants funded more than 1,000 projects from 2009 to 2014. Through mobility, partner projects and research projects, the EEA Grants shall help to develop resources and knowledge, and develop bilateral relations. The donor countries are Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein. Read more about the EEA programme here.