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Researchers Use Microwave Oven to Produce Solar Cell Material

Metallurgists at the University of Utah have fabricated a nanocrystal semiconductor using a common household microwave oven and abundant and cheap metals, which could lead to advances in PV solar cells, LED lighting, and heat-to-electricity applications.

The researchers were able to construct CZTS photovoltaic semiconductors using less expensive and more abundant metals than those traditionally used for semiconductors (currently gallium and indium), and the materials involved are considered “less toxic” than the arsenic and cadmium presently used.

CZTS (copper, zinc, tin, sulfur) cells were first explored in 1967, but the methods found for producing them were complex and lengthy, taking as long as five hours to create a thin film of the stuff, which serves as a photovoltaic material.

But it turns out that using microwaves “is a fast way to make these particles that have a broad range of applications”, and the process they developed could, with refinements, eventually be applied to commercial manufacturing. To produce the CZTS, researchers heated a solution of dissolved salts in the microwave, which creates nanocrystals that can be “painted” on a surface for solar cell applications.

“In the study, they determined the optimum time required to produce the most uniform crystals of the CZTS semiconductor – 18 minutes in the microwave oven – and confirmed the material indeed was CZTS by using a variety of tests, such as X-ray crystallography, electron microscopy, atomic force microscopy and ultraviolet spectroscopy. They also built a small photovoltaic solar cell to confirm that the material works and demonstrate that smaller nanocrystals display “quantum confinement,” a property that makes them versatile for different uses.” – University of Utah

The CZTS semiconductor, described as “easy-to-make”, could be integrated into multilayer solar cells, boosting the efficiency of PV modules, and could also be used in waste-heat-to-electricity conversion applications, manufacturing of electronics components, and the production of biosensors.

Michael Free, professor of metallurgical engineering, and Prashant Sarswat, research associate, will see their study of the microwaved CZTS semiconductor published in the June issue of the Journal of Crystal Growth.

While the microwave used in the study was just a common household one, the team also cautioned that this wasn’t something you should try in your kitchen: “Don’t do it at home. You have to be cautious when using these kinds of materials in a microwave.”

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