Researchers in the Netherlands have created a synthetic replacement for indium, an extremely rare metal that has become a necessary ingredient in solar cells and some organic light emitting diodes (OLEDs). The new material is made of carbon nanotubes and plastic nano particles, and researchers believe they’ll be able to achieve high levels of electrical conductivity with continued research. By replacing a rare earth mineral with an engineered material, these researchers could also be on the road to bringing down the high cost of creating solar cells.

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The research team was led by Paul van der Schoot and polymer chemist Cor Koning at the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands. The researchers were looking to develop an artificial material that had the two most important characteristics of indium (an essential component of many electronics) — transparency and electrical conductivity. Indium can be manipulated into thin, transparent sheets which are used in LCD and plasma televisions in addition to solar cells and LEDs. The Earth’s supply of indium is going to run out in about a decade, so finding a replacement for this highly used metal is extremely important.

The researchers successfully developed a replacement material by combining a small amount of readily available nanotubes, a solution of latex beads, and a small amount of binding polystyrene beads in water. When the solution is heated, the polystyrene beads fuse creating a network of carbon nanotubes which are surrounded by the highly conductive latex. The current material is not quite as conductive as indium tin oxide, but researchers are confident that by manipulating the number of carbon nanotubes used they can increase electrical conductivity. The new material stands to match tin oxide in terms of transparency and electric conductivity, and it also includes no heavy earth sensitive metals and is extremely flexible, making it perfect for bendable applications.

Via Science Daily