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Seizing Solar’s Bright Future | Mirage News

Consider the meteoric rise in solar energy use in the United States: solar energy efficiency has increased by almost 900 percent over the past decade, and electricity production in 2023 was eight times greater than in 2014. The jump between 2022 and 2023 alone was 51 percent, representing a record 32 gigawatts (GW) of solar installations available online. Over the last four years, more solar power has been added to the grid than any other form of generation. Installed solar power now exceeds 179 GW, enough to power nearly 33 million homes. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is so optimistic about solar that in its decarbonization plans it projects solar power will meet 45 percent of the nation’s electricity needs by 2050.

However, the continued rapid development of solar energy requires technological progress, especially to improve the efficiency and durability of photovoltaic (PV) materials and their production. This is where Optigon, a three-year-old spin-out company from MIT, comes to the rescue.

“Our goal is to build tools for research and industry that can accelerate the energy transition,” says Dane deQuilettes, the company’s co-founder and chief science officer. “The technology we have developed for solar energy will enable materials to be measured and analyzed as they are manufactured, both in the laboratory and on the production line, dramatically accelerating the optimization of photovoltaics.”

With its roots in MIT’s vibrant solar research community, Optigon is poised to deploy technology in 2024 that it believes will dramatically accelerate the pace of development of solar power and other clean energy projects.

Beyond silicon

Silicon, the material that underlies most photovoltaics, is limited by the laws of physics in the efficiency it can achieve by converting photons from the sun into electricity. Silicon-based solar cells can theoretically achieve power conversion levels as low as 30 percent, with actual efficiency levels hovering in the low 20s. But beyond silicon’s physical limitations, there is another issue for many researchers and the solar industry in the United States and elsewhere: China dominates the silicon solar market, from supply chains to manufacturing.

Scientists are eagerly looking for alternative materials that will increase the solar conversion capacity of silicon or replace it completely.

Over the past decade, a family of crystalline semiconductors known as perovskites have gained popularity as candidates for next-generation photovoltaic materials. Perovskite devices lend themselves to a novel manufacturing process using printing technology that could bypass the giant supply chain that China has built for silicon. Perovskite solar cells can be stacked or layered on silicon photovoltaics to achieve higher conversion efficiency. Because perovskite technology is flexible and lightweight, the modules can be used on roofs and other structures that cannot support heavier silicon solar PVs, lowering costs and enabling a wider range of building-integrated solar devices.

However, these new materials require testing, both during research and development and then on the assembly lines, where missing or defective optical, electrical or dimensional properties in the crystal nanostructures can negatively impact the final product.

“The actual measurement and data analysis processes were really, really slow because you had to use several separate tools that are very manual,” says Optigon co-founder and CEO Anthony Troupe ’21. “We wanted to develop tools to automatically detect the properties of a material, determine whether it can be made into a good or bad solar cell, and then optimize it.”

“Our approach combined several non-contact optical measurements using different types of light sources and detectors into one system that together provides a holistic, cross-sectional view of the material,” says Brandon Motes ’21, ME ’22, co-founder and CTO.

“This breakthrough in achieving millisecond time scales of data collection and analysis means we can take research-quality tools and actually apply them to a full production system, obtaining incredibly detailed information about products being built on massive gigawatt scales in real time,” Trupa says .

This streamlined system makes measurements “in the blink of an eye, unlike traditional tools,” says Joseph Berry, director of the U.S. Advanced Perovskite Manufacturing Consortium and senior research scientist at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. “Optigon techniques have high precision and enable high throughput, which means they can be used in many contexts where you need quick feedback and the ability to develop materials very, very quickly.”

According to Berry, Optigon’s technology can provide the solar industry with not only better materials, but also the ability to pump high-quality solar products faster than is currently possible. “If Optigon successfully implements its technology, we will be able to develop the materials we need faster and produce them with the precision we need,” he says. “This could lead to a new generation of photovoltaic modules at much lower costs.”

Measurement makes the difference

With Small Business Innovation Research funding from the DOE to commercialize its products and a grant from the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, Optigon settled into the Greentown Labs climate technology incubator in Somerville, Massachusetts. Here, the team is preparing for the spring launch of its first commercial product, the genesis of which lies in MIT’s GridEdge Solar Research Program.

Led by Vladimir Bulovic, professor of electrical engineering and director of MIT.nano, the GridEdge program was created with funding from the Tata Trusts to develop lightweight, flexible and affordable solar cells for distribution to rural communities around the world. When deQuilettes joined the group in 2017 as a postdoc, he was tasked with leading the program and building infrastructure for research and production of perovskite solar modules.

“After we created the material, we tried to understand whether it was good or not,” he recalls. “There were no good commercial metrology (measurement science) tools for materials other than silicon, so we started building our own.” Recognizing the need for the group to gain more expertise in this problem, especially in the areas of electrical engineering, software and mechanical engineering, deQuilettes called on undergraduate researchers to help create metrology tools for new solar materials.

“Forty people asked about it, but when I met Brandon and Anthony, something clicked; it was clear that we had a complementary skill set,” says deQuilettes. “We started working together, Anthony came up with beautiful designs that integrated multiple measurements, and Brandon created boards to control all the equipment, including various types of lasers. We started filing a lot of patents and that’s when we saw it all come together.”

“We knew from the beginning that metrology could significantly improve not only materials but also production efficiency,” says Troupe. Adds deQuilettes: “Our goal was to reach the highest orders of magnitude at a faster pace than would typically be possible, so we developed tools that would be useful not only in research laboratories but also on production lines to provide live quality feedback.”

Designed for industry, the Optigon device is the size of a football, “with sensor packages crammed into a small housing and taking measurements as material flows directly underneath,” Motes says. “We have also carefully considered ways to ensure that interaction with this tool is as seamless and, dare I say, as enjoyable as possible, by streaming data to both a dashboard that the operator can view and a custom database.”

Photovoltaics is just the beginning

Perhaps the company has already found its market niche. “The research group paid us to use our own prototype because they have a very urgent need to do this type of measurement,” says Troupe, and according to Motes, “Potential customers are asking us if they can buy the system now.” deQuilettes says, “We hope to become the de facto go-to company for all types of characterization metrology in the United States and beyond.”

Optigon’s challenges include product launch, full-scale production, technical support and sales. Greentown Labs offers support, as does the rich community of solar researchers and entrepreneurs at MIT. But the founders are already thinking about the next phases.

“We don’t limit ourselves to the photovoltaics area,” says deQuilettes. “We plan to work on other clean energy materials such as batteries and fuel cells.”

This is because the team wants to make the maximum impact on the climate challenge. “We thought a lot about the potential of our tools to reduce carbon emissions and did a really in-depth analysis looking at how our system could increase the efficiency of the production of solar panels and other energy technologies, reducing material consumption and energy wasted on conventional optimization,” says deQuilettes . “If we look at all of these sectors, we can expect to offset about 1 billion metric tons of CO2 (coalcarbon dioxide) per year in the not too distant future.”

The team wrote down the scale in their business plan. “We want to be a key enabler of bringing these new energy technologies to market,” says Motes. “We imagine it will be implemented on every production line producing these types of materials. Our goal is to go around and know that if we see a solar panel unfolded, there’s a pretty good chance that at some point it will be the one we measured.”