CSIRO looks to space to test next gen solar cell technology


Australia’s national science agency, the CSIRO, will team with Adelaide-based in-space transportation provider Space Machines Company (SMC) to test its next generation solar PV cell technology.

The CSIRO will explore the potential of its perovskite-based next gen solar cells on SMC’s spacecraft Optimus-1, due to be launched next year by Gold Coast rocket company Gilmour Space Technologies.

Flexible thin-film solar is not a new concept but it has so far remained a niche area, with efficiencies and device lifetimes lagging those achieved in silicon PV or thin films deposited on glass but the CSIRO is pursuing the development of printable solar cells that are lightweight, thin and semi-transparent.

The science agency has been researching both organic PV (OPV) and perovskite solar cells, which are made from a mix of organic and inorganic materials rather than traditional silicon solar cells.

Printable ‘solar inks’ are deposited onto flexible plastic films that can then be connected to make solar panels of significant size.

The CSIRO claims to have achieved efficiencies of greater than 19% on small-scale devices while the pilot-scale, roll-to-roll printing lines have successfully fabricated 30-centimetre-wide flexible solar modules that can be cut to length. The weight and flexibility of the panels make then ideal for places where traditional solar panels are too heavy or bulky.

CSIRO principal research scientist Mei Gao said the collaboration with SMC will be the first time the agency’s printable solar cells have been tested in space and expects the results to provide benefits for more traditional applications.

“We will collect data from this mission to explore new applications of our technology,” she said.

“Solar films are about making solar energy more accessible, on earth and in space.”

The CSIRO is exploring new flexible, thin-film solar.

Image: CSIRO

While the project will aid the continued development of flexible and lightweight solar PV cells, it will also help develop Australia’s in-space solar technology which is considered crucial for the growth of the country’s space industry.

Solar is the primary energy source in space, but SMC co-founder and chief executive Rajat Kulshrestha said space-graded rigid and foldable solar panels, the main alternatives today, are heavy and extremely expensive.

While printable solar cells have been less efficient than the rigid versions, in the future they could be an order of magnitude cheaper than traditional space-grade solar cells and exceptionally volume efficient.

While the initial test will use static printed cells that are fixed to the space craft’s surface, the CSIRO technology will be deployed alongside the more traditional solar panels so that their relative performance can be assessed.

“This is a fantastic example of collaboration between a privately funded space company and a government agency to develop the Australian sovereign capability in space,” Kulshrestha said.

“We are flying traditional [solar panels], but we will be taking CSIRO panels as payloads to ensure that we can test them and actually also get a benchmark across existing performance compared to traditional solar panels. I think this will be great telemetry to get, to be able to then go to the next step and really start to work more closely in the future with CSIRO.”

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