Georgia Tech scientists developed three-dimensional solar cells which just hitched a ride to space this week on a SpaceX rocket. At the International Space Station, the solar cells will be tested to see how well they function and how they respond to space conditions. The solar cells have been designed to capture the sun’s rays from every angle, which could enable spacecraft to gain more power from a limited surface area.
The experimental module blasted into space includes four different types of solar cells. One type is a “traditional planar” solar cell, and a second is a planar cell based on a formulation of low-cost materials: copper-zinc-tin-sulfide (CZTS). These materials cost about “a thousand times less than the rare-earth elements” like selenium and indium used in some solar cells. There are also two types of 3-D solar cells: one “based on CZTS” and the other “based on conventional cadmium telluride.” There are 18 solar cells total, and they will be tested in space for six months.
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3-D solar cells could forever alter the way spacecrafts receive power. The Georgia Tech solar cells are described as miniature “towers” coated with a “photo-absorber.” Instead of requiring the sun to be right above them to work, the innovative 3-D solar cells can capture sunlight over longer periods of time. Georgia Tech Research Institute principal research engineer Jud Ready said in a press release, “We want to see both the light-trapping performance of our 3-D solar cells and how they are going to respond to the harshness of space.”
After six months, the solar cells will return to Earth so scientists can study how they held up in space. According to Ready, “If it can survive in space, which is the harshest of environments from the standpoint of wide temperature swings, radiation, and numerous other factors, then we can be confident it will work well down on Earth.”
Images via Gary Meek, Georgia Tech