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Next-generation solar cells could put power stations in space


RIT scientists develop nanomaterials for NASA program

Someday, large-scale solar power stations in space could beam electricity to the surface of the moon, the earth and other planets, decreasing our dependence on a dwindling fossil-fuel supply.

Scientists at Rochester Institute of Technology are developing the next generation of solar cells, advancing the technology that could put a solar power system into earth’s orbit.

The National Science Foundation recently awarded a three-year, $200,000 grant to Ryne Raffaelle and Thomas Gennett, co-directors of RIT’s NanoPower Research Laboratory, to develop nanomaterials--no bigger than a billionth of a meter--in support of NASA’s space solar power program.

The notion of space solar power--discounted as farfetched and silly after the energy crunch of the 1970s--never completely went away. Some scientists and other visionaries remained intrigued by the idea of orbiting, football-field sized "blankets" of solar cells that could generate tremendous amounts of power. NASA’s program is revisiting the idea, pushing the latest technology as far as it will go.

Raffaelle and Gennett are working with scientists from the Ohio Aerospace Institute and Phoenix Innovations Inc. to develop a new-and-improved solar cell that is light, thin and highly efficient. This solar cell, a thin-film device, will sandwich tiny granules of semi-conductor material, known as Quantum dots, and carbon nanotubes.

"In order to put football-field sized arrays in space, they need to be lightweight and flexible, and able to withstand the rigors of space," Raffaelle says. "Today’s technology isn’t good enough, but with the theoretical possibilities offered by nanomaterials it could become a reality."

Gennett adds: "The types of solar cells that we are working to develop are a clear departure from even the most advanced crystalline solar cells used in the space industry today. If we are successful it will result in a complete paradigm shift in space solar power generation."

Rochester Institute of Technology’s Nanopower Research Laboratory in the College of Science conducts research on the generation and storage of energy using nanostructured materials, especially photovoltaic, waste heat recovery, and battery- and fuel-cell research.

For breaking news stories, hot-topic trend pieces and interesting perspectives, visit RIT’s news site and online experts database. To connect with RIT subject matter experts, searchable by name and expertise, go to and click on "RIT Experts."

Susan Murphy | EurekAlert!
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