ARPA-E funding Xerox Machine for Super Solar Panels

Researchers at PARC, an R and D-focused subsidiary of Xerox, say they’re developing a new digital printing process that could make it much cheaper to mass-produce concentrated solar photovoltaic systems. Such systems can dramatically increase the efficiency of solar cells by using lenses to concentrate and focus the sunlight onto small cells.

Increasing efficiency could be an effective way to bring down the cost of solar modules, whose price has already fallen dramatically during the past several years. Much of the cost of conventional silicon systems is now due to things like wiring, installation, and permitting. More efficient panels would mean we need fewer of them to produce the same amount of power—which in turn cuts the costs of hardware and installation. But concentrated photovoltaic technology has so far failed to gain traction because it’s still too expensive and bulky to compete with conventional silicon solar panels.

PARC hopes to make the technology more competitive by shrinking the components and designing a new flat-panel form factor, and by developing a relatively inexpensive manufacturing process. The new process will build on a larger effort by PARC researchers to invent a new kind of printer that can precisely deposit “inks” made of tiny semiconductor chips, called “chiplets,” by using assembly principles similar to those behind Xerox photocopiers.

Chiplets in solution

So far, they have demonstrated only the ability to make small-scale devices by wiring together a few printed chiplets. But eventually the technique could allow people to design and print very large arrangements of small electrical and optical components similar to the way they would design and print a document using a Xerox printer.

They have a three year ARPA-E grant to apply the innovative printing process to build microscale arrays of photovoltaic cells on a flat panel.

PARC is working with Sandia National Laboratories (SNL) to develop a breakthrough digital manufacturing capability that will enable the fabrication of panel-sized micro-scale concentrated photovoltaic (micro-CPV) backplanes, overcoming the limitations of current pick-and-place processes.

PARC researchers say the new printing approach could lead to a high-speed manufacturing process that is orders of magnitude cheaper for building these microscale systems over large areas.

The project is called MOSAIC (Micro-scale Optimized Solar-cell Arrays with Integrated Concentration).

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