100 facts about Solar at CSIRO: Part 3

To celebrate our 100th blog post, we’ve put together (in no particular order) a list of 100 things you may not know about solar research at CSIRO. Today we shine a light on our photovoltaics research and what it has to do with the planet Pluto, a bottle of sunscreen, a human hair, soccer balls, window cleaners, robots and pool parties.

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  1. The Photovoltaics (PV) Group at the CSIRO Energy Centre was the first group in Australia to fabricate an organic solar device as large as 100 cm2.
  2. The ‘glovebox’ in our lab is where we make new organic photovoltaic (OPV) cells. Instead of normal air, it’s full of pure nitrogen because OPV cells are sensitive to air and moisture until sealed.
  3. Our cryopump – a piece of equipment in the OPV glove box – runs at temperatures of just 11 Kelvin (-262°C). This is colder than the surface of Pluto. It operates an evaporator that maintains a vacuum of up to 10-7 Pa, which is about the same as the air pressure on the near side of the moon.
  4. Organic solar cells contain squillions of ultra-awesome, soccer ball-shaped buckminsterfullerene molecules.
  5. Dye-sensitised solar cells (DSCs) can be ‘printed’ like you’d screen print a t-shirt. Samples we’ve made on site for special occasions have featured the CSIRO logo, Channel ten logo and the title of this blog!
  6. We can make dye-sensitised cells in a range of colours, including red, green, blue, purple and orange. This gives them a lot of interesting architectural possibilities.
  7. The semiconductor in our DSCs is titanium dioxide, which is a substance found in many household objects like white paint, sunscreen and toothpaste. We use nanoparticles of titanium dioxide that measure about 20 nanometres across.
  8. Thin-film DSCs only need an active layer 10 micrometres thick. That’s only a sixth of the width of a human hair.
  9. Think that’s thin? Well, the active layer in organic solar cells is only 300 nanometres thick – that’s one two-hundredth the width of a strand of hair.
  10. Once a photon hits a DSC it only takes one femtosecond (a quadrillionth of a second) for it to generate an electron – but it takes a million times longer for the electron to make it out of the device and into the wires.
  11. We measure the surface profile of organic and dye-sensitised solar cells using a machine that drags a very fine needle over the surface – just like a record player but more accurate.
  12. Solar PV scientist Dr Greg Wilson can make working solar cells out of blueberries and orange juice.
  13. If you think cleaning windows is tedious work, have a look at how we have to clean glass before we attach an organic solar cell to it. First we wash it in water, then detergent, then give it an acetone rinse, then an isopropanol rinse, and then blast it with plasma to burn off any remaining gunk. It takes about two and a half hours to clean a square a sixth the size of an iPhone screen.

    The temperature and humidity readout in our dry-lab, seen through a dye-sensitised solar cell screen printed in the shape of the CSIRO logo.

  14. Our specialist dry-lab facility is maintained at a very low humidity. The air in it contains less than a teaspoon of water – compared to a normal room of the same size which would have about two cups of water in the air.
  15. On any given day our PV team plays with a lot of cool gizmos in the lab, including laser cutters, robot printers, ultrasonic waves (both for cleaning and soldering), plasma cleaners, sandblasters (for making holes in ceramics), ultra-high vacuums, and ultra-low temperatures.
  16. A microwave oven – the type you heat your lunch in – can also be used to prepare the dyes used in our solar cells. It can speed up the chemical reactions from five hours to five minutes.
  17. Solar panel performance can change with temperature, sunlight spectrum, and other factors. CSIRO’s new outdoor PV testing facility will be able to accurately measure these effects for many different types of PV.
  18. In addition to the many kilowatts of PV generating electricity for our site, we also have about a dozen test modules on the roof of our lab building. Each one generates about 36,000 data sets every year – which lucky Ben in the PV group looks so very much forward to analysing.
  19. We’re establishing a new laboratory at the Energy Centre for very accurate measurements of PV efficiency. When it’s completed, it’ll be one of the most accurate labs of its kind in the world.
  20. At the Energy Centre, even our computing can be clean and green. Some of our solar modelling is done using CSIRO’s GPU computer cluster, which is ranked 15th in the world for energy-efficient supercomputers.
  21. At CSIRO, our pool parties are strictly in the name of science. We recently tested some floating solar cells for a client in an ‘outdoor open-air aqueous containment device’ (i.e. a pool). Deckchairs were not included.
  22. Thanks to the xenon ‘solar simulators’ in our PV lab, our science team has access to the best quality indoor tans any geek could wish for. (Important safety note: lab equipment not actually used for tanning purposes.)
  23. In the PV group we collaborate with researchers in many different countries, including China, Denmark, Germany, India, Israel, Singapore, Sweden, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom and the United States.

One Comment on “100 facts about Solar at CSIRO: Part 3”

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