Old technology enables new approaches to sustainability

Chemical and materials engineering researcher using household printer to manufacturing renewable energy materials

10/24/2013 | By: Kirstin Swagman  |

Ghassan Jabbour came to Nevada because it offered a unique set of resources: water, wind, sun, geothermal energy and gas.

Jabbour is hoping to combine that natural advantage with a novel use of a familiar office standby: the inkjet printer. Using advanced manufacturing techniques, Jabbour is developing ways to print renewable energy technologies.

"As an engineer, I want to help people live a better life," he said. "I love doing the fundamental science but I'm an engineer. I want companies to come and say, ‘Your innovation is important. We want to fund it.'"

Jabbour recently joined the Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering and is the new director of the University's Renewable Energy Center. His research focuses on developing low-cost approaches to the manufacture of solar cells.

"We are heavily involved in printed solar cells, printed batteries, printed charge storage like super capacitors," he said. "That will reduce the weight of solar cells, the weight of batteries, and it will reduce their fragility. The aim is to make it low cost because if you can't make it at low cost you can't sell it at low cost."

The key to making these devices low-cost is to print them, Jabbour said, and he's researching ways to do that using everything from an inkjet to a 3D printer to a traditional newspaper printing press.

"You can imagine printing solar cells like two miles long at a speed of maybe 20 mph, 30 mph," he said. "That's how you make it make sense and compete with traditional approaches of generating electricity."

Jabbour's goal is to bring the cost of electricity generated from solar cells below 10 cents per kilowatt-hour. Now, that price ranges anywhere from 12 to 22 cents per kilowatt-hour depending on the region. U.S. Department of Energy estimates that cost would need to reach about 6 cents to compete with other, non-renewable forms of electricity.

In addition to developing ways to print lightweight solar cells, batteries and antennas, Jabbour is also working on research to develop thin silicon solar cells, which are the dominant technology in the market right now. Jabbour is collaborating with Dhanesh Chandra, professor of chemical and materials engineering on the fabrication of the thin silicon substrates, which are less than 50 micrometers thick.

"Using these cells is very expensive compared to conventional approaches. That is because making these cells in the first place cost a lot of money," Jabbour said. "So we want to reduce the cost of making these cells, and the most important way is really to reduce the thickness of the silicon used."

Producing thinner silicon cells requires overcoming some challenges, namely that efficient silicon cells require an orderly atomic structure, so any new approach to manufacturing them needs to maintain that structure.

"I'm happy to say that I think we have a very good approach to generate low-cost polycrystalline silicon substrates," Jabbour said. "Thin silicon substrates, with the aim to make them flexible very soon, within a year or so."

Jabbour is also applying the low-cost printing approach to the manufacture of nanoparticles. His research group has developed ways to use a simple, inkjet printer to produce a wide range of nanomaterials. By replacing the ink cartridges with specific chemical compositions and ordering them to print in a certain way, researchers can causes a chemical reaction on the printable surface.

"You have to order the inkjet to put three drops of this, one drop of that because each drop has a certain amount of chemicals inside it," he said. "After the reaction is finished, you can look in the microscope and see nanoparticles."

Jabbour is also working on developing thin, lightweight batteries that can store charges, enabling them to draw on resources like sun and wind to develop a charge and use it later, perhaps when the initial energy source is not present.

Jabbour imagines combining all these printed, lightweight elements into one system that might then be used in autonomous aerial applications, freeing up the systems for longer flights without needing to carry fuel.

"Our idea is you really want to integrate these renewable and other printable devices with flying objects in order to enhance their efficiency," he said. "That way they don't need a lot of fuel. They can use alternative resources."


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