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3D graphene to replace costly platinum in solar cells

Posted: 22 Aug 2013     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Michigan Technology University  3D graphene  platinum  solar cells 

A team at Michigan Technology University has developed a '3D graphene' which they say can replace the platinum in solar cells without degrading their efficiency.

Dye-sensitised solar cells are thin, flexible, easy to make and very good at turning sunshine into electricity. However, a key ingredient is platinum—one of the most expensive metals on the planet. While only small amounts are needed, at $1,500 an ounce, the cost of the silvery metal is still significant.

Regular graphene is a famously two-dimensional form of carbon just a molecule or so thick. MTU team invented a novel approach to synthesise a unique 3D version with a honeycomb-like structure.

They combined lithium oxide with carbon monoxide in a chemical reaction that forms lithium carbonate (Li2CO3) and the honeycomb graphene. The Li2CO3 helps shape the graphene sheets and isolates them from each other, preventing the formation of garden-variety graphite. Furthermore, the Li2CO3 particles can be easily removed from 3D honeycomb-structured graphene by an acid.

The researchers determined that the 3D honeycomb graphene had excellent conductivity and high catalytic activity, raising the possibility that it could be used for energy storage and conversion. So they replaced the platinum counter electrode in a dye-sensitised solar cell with one made of the 3D honeycomb graphene. Then they put the solar cell in the sunshine and measured its output.

The cell with the 3D graphene counter electrode converted 7.8 per cent of the sun's energy into electricity, nearly as much as the conventional solar cell using costly platinum (8 per cent).

"Synthesising the 3D honeycomb graphene is neither expensive nor difficult, and making it into a counter electrode posed no special challenges," the researchers said.

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