New Solar Cell Easy As Pizza To Make

The iJET is a new type of solar cell that's cheap and easy to make, requiring not much more than a pizza oven, some nail polish remover, and a common inkjet printer. Australian scientist Nicole Kuepper describes her invention.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

It's estimated that about two billion people in the world live without reliable electricity. Now, solar power has been discussed as a possible solution, but harnessing the sun's energy is costly, tricky, and just beyond the reach of most developing countries. A young Australian scientist hopes to change that. She's developed the iJET, a new type of solar cell that's cheap, easy to make, and requires not much more than a pizza oven, some nail polish remover, and a common inkjet printer. The iJET's inventor is Nicole Kuepper, a 23-year-old Ph.D. student at the University of New South Wales. She's just won a couple of top Australian science awards. She joins us from the studios of the Australian broadcasting company in Sydney. Ms. Kuepper, thanks so much for being with us.

Ms. NICOLE KUEPPER (Ph.D. Student and Lecturer, School of Photovoltaic and Renewable Energy Engineering, University of New South Wales): It's a pleasure. Thank you very much for having me on your show.

SIMON: Is there any easy way to explain to us how this works?

Ms. KUEPPER: Sure there is. Basically, what we do is we take a silicon solar cell - so a beautiful little wafer of silicon - and we spray something like nail polish onto this wafer. And then what we do is we inkjet print something like nail polish remover in a set pattern that we've put, the same way that you'd print just a normal photo. What this enables us to do is it means that we can create patterns on a solar cell with very, very high resolution at a really low cost, which is really exciting. Then what we do is we metalize this pattern by using just an aluminium spray. And then what we do is we bake it at a really low temperature, around 550 Fahrenheit, in something like a pizza oven.

What it means that we can do is - currently the way that solar cells are manufactured, they use a lot of high-tech, high-cleanliness equipment. For example, you'd have to wear many layers of gloves and booties and a face mask and goggles. We're trying to do away with all of that so that we can ensure that these solar cells can actually be manufactured in a developing country's environment that you might find in say Ghana or Laos, for example.

SIMON: Is there a eureka moment you can tell us about?

Ms. KUEPPER: Definitely. I've always been known as a bit clumsy in the lab, and I sort of forgot to do this one process initially. And actually, the solar cells that I thought would come out as duds ended up working, which lead us to actually come up with this patent for a new low-temperature metallization technique. So it's often funny how in research, it is those little mistakes that you make, and you think, oh, hang on. That was very exciting.

SIMON: Well, congratulations. We should all have many such mistakes like that.

Ms. KUEPPER: Thank you very much for having me.

SIMON: Speaking with us from Sydney, Nicole Kuepper, inventor of the iJET solar cell. To see a video of Nicole Kuepper at work on her solar cells, you can go to our new Weekend Edition blog, npr.org/soapbox. This is NPR News.

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