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The University of California, San Diego, is part of a new collaborative research center to optimize development of tandem solar modules. (Image: UC San Diego)

The U.S. Department of Energy Solar Energy Technologies Office (SETO) has announced that a team of researchers, led by MIT and including the University of California San Diego, has been selected to receive a $11.25M cost-shared award to establish a new research center that will advance the development of next-generation solar cells for commercial use.

A collaborative effort with lead industry participant CubicPV, solar startup Verde Technologies, and Princeton University, the center will bring together teams of researchers to support the creation of what are known as perovskite-silicon tandem solar modules. These are solar cells made of stacked materials — silicon paired with perovskites — that together absorb more of the solar spectrum than single materials, resulting in a dramatic increase in efficiency.

However, current methods to create perovskite layers require painstaking rounds of design iteration and testing that have been difficult to reproduce at scale, inhibiting their development for commercial use. With current methods, there is also often a trade-off between stability and efficiency. The new research center will address these challenges by using a co-optimization framework guided by machine learning and automation. Researchers from industry and academia will work together to develop perovskite-silicon tandem solar modules that are co-designed for both stability and performance, with goals to significantly accelerate research and development and the transfer of these achievements into commercial environments.

The center will be named Accelerated Co-Design of Durable, Reproducible, and Efficient Perovskite Tandems, or ADDEPT.

David Fenning, associate professor of nanoengineering at UC San Diego, has worked with MIT mechanical engineering professor Tonio Buonassisi, the future director of the center, on the idea of merging materials, automation, and computation, specifically in the field of AI and solar, since 2014. Now, a central thrust of the ADDEPT project will be to deploy machine learning and robotic screening to optimize processing of perovskite-based solar materials for efficiency and durability.

Fenning’s lab will be responsible for the synthesis and characterization of prototype materials and solar cells using high-throughput tools. Fenning, who is part of the Sustainable Power and Energy Center at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering, will leverage his expertise in using advanced microscopy to probe inside perovskites at the nanoscale level and elucidate mechanisms of degradation.

Adam Lorenz, CTO of solar energy technology company CubicPV, stressed the importance of thinking about scale alongside quality and efficiency to accelerate the perovskite effort into the commercial environment. “Instead of chasing record efficiencies with tiny pixel-sized devices and later attempting to stabilize them, we will simultaneously target stability, reproducibility, and efficiency,” he said. “It’s a module-centric approach that creates a direct channel from research and development advancements into industry.”

Barry Rand, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment at Princeton University, pointed to the intersection of scientific knowledge and market awareness. “Understanding how chemistry affects films and interfaces will empower us to co-design for stability and performance,” he said. “The center will accelerate this use-inspired science, with close guidance from our end customers, the industry partners.”

The MIT-led team was selected as a part of the SETO Fiscal Year 2022 Photovoltaics (PV) funding program, an effort to reduce costs and supply chain vulnerabilities, further develop durable and recyclable solar technologies, and advance perovskite PV technologies toward commercialization. ADDEPT is one project that will tackle perovskite durability, which will extend module life. The overarching goal of these projects is to lower the levelized cost of electricity generated by PV.