ASU solar energy startup shines in national competition

May 13, 2020

A bright idea developed through the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering has been selected for the final stage of a national contest meant to expand solar energy manufacturing in the United States.

SunFlex Solar is a new startup venture co-founded by ASU Assistant Research Technologist Kate Fisher, Associate Professor Zachary Holman, Assistant Research Professor Zhengshan “Jason” Yu and doctoral student Barry Hartweg. The group entered its Sunfoil solar panel enhancement in the second round of the American-Made Solar Prize competition initiated by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Energy Technologies Office. Kate Fisher of SunFlex Solar inspects a solar panel. SunFlex Solar co-founder Kate Fisher inspects the embossed aluminum foil at the heart of award-winning ASU solar energy innovation. Photo courtesy of SunFlex Solar Download Full Image

The foursome from the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering, one of the six Fulton Schools, learned in September that they had won $50,000 and a place among 20 semifinalists. By the end of March, SunFlex Solar was chosen as one of 10 finalists in the competition. The latter selection also came with $100,000 in prize money and an additional $75,000 in credit for development assistance from a network of national laboratories and component fabrication facilities.

The competition will announce two ultimate winners this summer, and each venture will receive half a million dollars to develop their innovation and an additional $75,000 in credit for laboratory and fabricator support. SunFlex Solar seeks to be one of those two winners through its novel method of enhancing solar panel efficiency at low cost.

“One leading technology that produces more power than industry-standard solar cells is called interdigitated back-contact, or IBC for short,” Fisher said. “IBC panels produce 6% more power than standard modules, but they are far too expensive for market application.”

That 6% may not sound significant, but it means a lot to the bottom line of solar power systems. Most expenses associated with solar installations are not the panels themselves, but so-called “balance of systems” costs. These comprise government permitting, inverter devices, panel racking, wiring and labor — and they represent five to 10 times more spend than the panels involved. As a consequence, any innovation that increases solar panel efficiency can reduce panel size and yield a multiplying effect in terms of lower costs across entire solar power systems.

Therefore, even a single-digit efficiency boost from IBC-based panels is meaningful, but the semiprecious metals used in their construction — silver and copper — make them too expensive. SunFlex Solar has solved this problem by developing a new method to make high-efficiency IBC panels at the same cost as lower-performing industry-standard panels by using an alternative material.

“Our Sunfoil solar panel replaces silver and copper in the IBC cells with aluminum foil,” Fisher said. “Our actual innovation is how the aluminum is integrated into the panel. In particular, we emboss the aluminum foil to form busbars that make electrical contact with the back of IBC solar cells. Then we weld these busbars to the cells with a laser, resulting in a robust interconnection.”

Holman points out that the innovation isn't just an idea. His research group at ASU devoted three years to develop this technology through a U.S. Department of Energy-funded project, and SunFlex Solar now has a patent application in process.

“Our next steps are to use prize money to purchase a laser and the materials to scale up from an initial single-cell example to create four-cell prototypes,” Holman said. “We then plan to use the voucher credit to test these prototypes with third parties. First is performance verification testing at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado, and then outdoor power generation testing at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico.” 

With those validations complete, SunFlex Solar can partner with a module manufacturer to create industry-standard, 60-cell panels and move this ASU innovation into the marketplace.

“Our business model involves technology translation to an established panel manufacturer through a joint venture or acquisition,” Holman said. “SunFlex Solar brings our intellectual property and the technological expertise of our people. Our panel manufacturing partner will bring complementary capital, manufacturing capacity and supply and distribution chains.”

The success of ASU in the American-Made Solar Prize competition is not a first. Fulton Schools startup venture Crystal Sonic competed in the previous round of this contest, and it also reached finalist status for its development of a method to thinly slice expensive solar cell materials and dramatically reduce manufacturing costs. Yu was a member of that competition team, and he says that back-to-back successes for ASU are not a coincidence.

“ASU is unique in its ability to produce solar components — from cells to modules. We may be the only university in the U.S. with such comprehensive capacity,” he said. “And we have researchers across the whole spectrum of photovoltaic technologies who foster interdisciplinary learning and innovation. Actually, the opportunities represented by the facilities and researchers here are why I joined ASU.”

Hartweg shares the same reasoning for his doctoral work here, which has been more innovative than he expected.

“ASU was first on my list when applying to PhD programs because this university simply has the best and most established solar research groups,” he said. “But I had no expectation that I would be a part of a startup. That said, I'm learning a lot about the entrepreneurial aspect of taking a technology from a laboratory to a form that works for industry. And that's unique. Few people get the chance to learn these skills from an engineering program.”

Gary Werner

Senior Media Relations Officer, Media Relations and Strategic Communications


Turbulent terrain: Peering beneath the Venusian surface

Research project aims to provide prototype for next-generation seismometers for planetary exploration

May 13, 2020

If your purpose is to test the toughness of a particular technology, Venus is an optimal site for the experiment.

The planet closest to Earth is the hottest in our solar system — even hotter than Mercury, the planet closest to the sun — with an average surface temperature of more than 800 degrees Fahrenheit. Venus and Earth Solar system neighbors Earth and Venus are close to each other in size, mass, composition and in the conditions under which they formed, but radically different in atmospheric composition and other ways. Both the nearly identical and sharply contrasting characteristics draw the interest of planetary researchers. Photo courtesy Pixabay Download Full Image

Scientists believe Venus once had an Earth-like climate with a lot of water, including oceans. But the buildup of a dense atmosphere of close to 100% carbon dioxide created an intense greenhouse effect that trapped heat and boiled away water and any chance of sustaining life.

Such hostile territory is an ideal laboratory for a new project in NASA’s Planetary Instrument Concepts for the Advancement of Solar System Observations program, or PICASSO.

Close to $1 million has been awarded by NASA to a team of engineers and scientists at Arizona State University and Wayne State University in Michigan to produce a miniature seismometer — an electronic ground-motion detection sensor with a data recording system — capable of operating effectively in the extreme Venusian environment.

two women in a lab

Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering Professor Lenore Dai (right) pictured with Elizabeth Nofen, who conducted research in Dai’s lab to earn her doctoral degree in chemical engineering. Dai will provide research opportunities to two doctoral students in the research project she is leading for the NASA PICASSO program. Photo by Jessica Hochreiter/ASU

Professor Lenore Dai, a chemical engineer and director of the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy, one of the six Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at ASU, is leading the endeavor to better understand the workings of the interior structure of Venus.

Like Earth, Venus also has a central core, a mantle of rocky materials and a crust. So, getting a clear picture of seismic (ground motion) activity on Venus has long been a target for scientific exploration.

“The surface of Venus is a nasty place,” said one of Dai’s co-investigators, Associate Professor of Research James Lyons, a planetary scientist in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration, but the team’s prototype seismometer “has the potential to survive for extended periods of time — months or maybe longer — on the surface, and can be deployed at any angle. A suite of these seismometers deployed on the surface would revolutionize our understanding of Venus.”

Dai says a seismometer that can handle the stress of the climatic conditions on Venus will provide a template for next-generation seismometers and other sensing technologies capable of performing their missions throughout the solar system.

Co-investigator Joseph O’Rourke, a planetary geologist and assistant professor in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration, is focusing on the planet’s dynamics “from crust to core.”

Gathering seismic data from the interior of Venus “will help define how the seismometer will need to perform to answer high-priority science questions,” O’Rourke said. “I think our prototype seismometer will become a great candidate for advanced development and, eventually, inclusion on a space flight mission (to the planet).”

Co-investigator Edward Garnero, a professor and geophysicist and an expert in geodynamic modeling in the School of Earth and Space Exploration, is providing a seismic and geologic map of Venus for the team. The work of another co-investigator, Yong Xu, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Wayne State University, focuses on electrical circuit research.

The team’s proposed miniature seismometer is based on a liquid sensing mechanism that uses a molecular electronic transducer, or MET.

cross sections of Mercury, Venus, Earth, the Moon and Mars

Similarities between the cores, mantles and crusts of Venus and Earth make the planet’s interior particularly intriguing to scientists and engineers. The two planets have large iron cores, rocky silicate mantles and long histories of seismic activity. Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Dai is a pioneer in developing ionic liquid-based MET seismometers for planetary exploration. She has led the development of a high-performance ionic liquid-based electrolyte for the MET seismometer over the past six years.

She has also been awarded a new grant of more than $437,000 from NASA to support research aimed at developing a MET sensor to be integrated at the system level for potential moon missions.

MET-based seismometers include an assemblage of devices and components. MET technology also uses a fluid to respond to accelerations of seismic activity. The fluid flows through a sensing component that produces a measurable current to provide highly precise ground motion data.

In addition, the seismometer doesn’t need to be particularly large or heavy to perform efficiently, and it needs only a relatively low amount of energy to operate and can be installed at arbitrary or random angles.

Dai says NASA wants to see the three-year project produce a design and prototype for technology capable of providing new scientific data for future Venus exploration missions. The funding also supports two positions for engineering doctoral students to work on developing the new seismometer.

Karin Valentine, media relations and marketing manager for ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration, contributed to this article.

Joe Kullman

Science writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering