Crew aboard the International Space Station is testing new 3D solar cells

It is no secret that NASA is right at the tip of the cutting edge of scientific innovation and for many years it has been pioneering the use of solar energy, famously powering the International Space Station (ISS) itself. A crew aboard the ISS is continuing this spirit, by testing out a new 3D solar PV cell, which it hopes will be show a higher efficiency than current solar cells.

The investigation was planned and is being led by researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology, where they developed the NanoRacks-Nano Tube Solar Cell. The cell has 3D tubes incorporated into its design that trap sunlight that hits the cell from any direction, and uses an earth abundant photoabsorber material, copper zinc tin sulfide (CZTS).

The investigation will focus on whether this groundbreaking 3D design will be able to absorb sunlight more efficiently, both on earth and in space, by continually changing the angles of the array, to see if this can accelerate electrical characterization opportunities. It will also explore the effects of space on the solar cells, to see if it accelerates degradation, while also determining if CZTS can be used as a photoabsorber in a 3D PV array.

If successful, the 3D cells have two big advantages over conventional cells. Firstly they can be produced on top of metal foils, which makes them lightweight, flexible and cost efficient, and secondly, they could circumvent the need for heavy and expensive tracking machinery. The research brief writes that the expedition should be completed in September 2016, so hopefully the results from the experiment will be published close to this date.