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Rethink Solar Energy: Gary Cheng

Green high-speed laser research helps transform solar panels

High-speed laser research helps transform solar panels

While much of the world‘s solar energy technology originated in the United States, other countries have been more aggressive in advancing its use. Gary Cheng, associate professor of industrial engineering at Purdue University, thinks the U.S. can become a leader again in the industry and is working in support of that goal.

“The United States wants to catch up in the solar panel market, but its dominated by European countries, Japan and China, because they have invested more resources in it,” Cheng says. “The innovation and technology in the United States is the best in the world, but we need to increase the efficiency of solar panels and lower their manufacturing cost to be competitive.”

Cheng indicates that the latest research he is conducting at Purdue with lasers and solar cell panels could help make solar energy more practical and affordable. He says the use of lasers in manufacturing is showing great promise for both improving the solar cells efficiency and reducing the manufacturing cost. Through a nearly half-million-dollar grant from the National Science Foundation, Cheng has been using high-speed lasers to modify thin-film solar panels. The lasers are being used on the panels to improve the absorption of sunlight, which is the key to improved energy production.

Cheng notes that because this method functions at room temperature, it will help drive down the manufacturing cost. He hopes these manufacturing improvements will make solar panels an energy cost saver for homeowners and businesses.

“Eventually, with this laser scribing and structuring of solar cells, we would expect efficiency to increase and costs to decrease,” Cheng says. “I think this will be successful in both areas. Solar panels have been hot in the marketplace for a long time, and this research will expand their use.”

Cheng says that although using lasers to improve solar panels is nothing new, the interest in renewable energy has hit a new high over the past few years. That interest is now attracting the funding and attention needed to move energy sources like solar into the mainstream.

Cheng’s work with solar panels is just one of several interesting projects on which he and his students are working. His research is expansive — from nano/microscale 3D forming and crystallization of thin films to property enhancement of bulk materials with nanostructures.

He has been recognized with receipt of the NSF CAREER Award, Office of Naval Research Young Investigator Award and SME Outstanding Young Manufacturing Engineer Award.