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The Air Force Research Laboratory has published research into 3D printed solar cells. Using Optomec’s aerosol jet technology, the AFRL intend to develop a more efficient production process for harnessing solar power.

The research group expects that by providing an accessible manufacturing method, the technology can become more widely used. Leading the research project, Dr. Santanu Bag explains the project’s motivation, “Solar cells can generate electricity in an environmentally friendly way, but current, complex fabrication costs make the technology expensive. We’re looking at new ways to use materials and manufacturing technologies to make these less expensively.”

Though research into solar cells began in the 1950s, the technology for making them is complex and labor intensive. At a basic level, to fabricate solar cells, engineers rely on extremely pure, single-crystalline silicon. The pure silicon is extracted from an original material such as quartz or sand and is transformed into thin wafers. The silicon wafers are chemically treated to form an electric field, with a positive and negative polarity. These silicon semiconductors, or solar cells, are encapsulated in a support to form a photovoltaic module, where they are then able to collect and transform sunlight into an electric current.

This multistep, labor intensive process is time-consuming and uses highly sophisticated equipment, requiring a number of technicians and engineers to create the end product. Quality control is key, as a discrepancy during any stage of the manufacturing process could have an effect on the performance of the cells.

This high cost of manufacturing has prohibited widespread use of solar power, despite its cost saving potential.

“If you want to make solar competitive, you need to make solar cells more efficient and cost effective,” said Bag.

Albuquerque’s Optomec has showcased its ability to print onto 3D surfaces with a turbine blade for GE. The company also recently advanced its proprietary aerosol jet technology with the ability to print with copper inks. The breakthrough is expected to have a big impact on the promise of 3D printed electronics.