Penn State creates silicon solar optical fibers

A meter long coil of the PV-integrated fiber optic cable, courtesy Badding lab, Penn StateResearchers at Penn State recently developed a silicon-based optical fiber with solar-cell capabilities that’s thinner than a human hair. The fibers could be used to develop flexible solar fabrics that can be curved or twisted into shape.

The resulting fibers incorporate integrated electronics into a fiber that’s thinner than the width of a human hair and can be made in multi-meter lengths. The research was posted online by the journal Advanced Materials in December 2012 and is being published in the journal's print edition at a later date. The research was led by John Badding, a professor of chemistry at Penn State and included an international team of chemists, physicists and engineers, according to Penn State. The research was funded by the National Science Foundation, Penn State's Materials Research Institute Nano Fabrication Network, and the United Kingdom's Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

The research team devised a method for building an new optical fiber with integrated electronic components. As such the device doesn’t have to integrate with an electronic chip. Building on previous work into merging optical fibers with electronic chips, the team used high-pressure chemistry techniques to deposit semiconducting materials directly, layer by layer, into tiny holes in optical fibers, the university said.

In the recently published research, the team described using the techniques to make a fiber out of crystalline silicon semiconductors to work as a photovoltaic cell. "Our goal is to extend high-performance electronic and solar-cell function to longer lengths and to more flexible forms. We already have made meters-long fibers but, in principle, our team's new method could be used to create bendable silicon solar-cell fibers of over 10 meters in length," Badding said in a release. "Long, fiber-based solar cells give us the potential to do something we couldn't really do before: We can take the silicon fibers and weave them together into a fabric with a wide range of applications such as power generation, battery charging, chemical sensing and biomedical devices."

The research could lead to PV devices with different properties than most conventional modules. For instance, by having a woven, circular surface, such a device could catch sunlight at more angles than a flat cell, and could be cheaper to produce. “Woven, fiber-based solar cells would be lightweight, flexible configurations that are portable, foldable and even wearable," Badding added.