Uh, no, your countertop microwave isn’t going to allow you to turn your kitchen into a solar cell factory. That isn’t quite what Oregon State University meant with its attention-grabbing press release headlined, “Microwave Ovens May Help Produce Lower Cost Solar Panels.”
But it’s not too far off.
Researchers at the university say they’ve found that microwave heating is a remarkably good way to synthesize copper zinc tin sulfide, an alternative thin-film solar cell compound that has the benefits of being cheaper and less expensive than a lot of what’s in play today.
The heating is actually one of two important new approaches to producing thin-film PV that scientists are working on, as OSU explains it. The first is making cells by rolling or spraying on an ink made of nanoparticles – as at the Australian national lab CSIRO, for example, where researchers have used the technique to make cadmium-telluride cells using a minimum of material or energy.
OSU’s advance is in what the university calls a “one-pot synthesis,” using microwave instead of conventional heating, to create the nanoparticle inks out of these seemingly preferable materials.
“This approach should save money, work well and be easier to scale up at commercial levels, compared to traditional synthetic methods,” Greg Herman, an associate professor in the School of Chemical, Biological and Environmental Engineering at OSU, said in a statement. “Microwave technology offers more precise control over heat and energy to achieve the desired reactions.”
The Oregon State researchers aren’t the only ones focused on this sort of compound. Last week at the American Chemical Society’s national meeting in Philadelphia, Caltech physicist Harry Atwater and Dow Chemical chemist James Steves gave a presentation touting the possibilities of using some of these same materials – what they call “earth-abundant” materials, like copper oxide and zinc phosphide – in solar cells instead of the so-called rare-earths like indium and gallium. There are worries about the cost and availability of the rare-earths because at present only China is equipped to mine and process them in a big scale.