Machine Design

Superfast heating could yield flexible electronics, better solar cells

Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) researchers believe they can greatly improve the manufacturing of solar cells, computers, and flat-panel displays by controlling materials at the nanoscale.


A 750-kW radiant plasma-arc lamp boasts heating rates 3,000 times faster than conventional technologies. The lamp, designed and developed by Mattson Technology, can heat a surface at 1,000,000°F/sec.

"More importantly, the lamp delivers those power densities over large areas, and that lets us build microstructures with uniform properties," says Craig Blue of ORNL's Metals and Ceramics Div.

"In the U.S., photovoltaics is a $500 million industry and it's growing at a rate of 30 to 40% per year," says Ron Ott, Blue's colleague on the project. "By 2020, the photovoltaic industry is projected to boast revenues of $15 billion worldwide."

ORNL's low-cost technology lets manufacturers process materials on inexpensive, low-temperature substrates such as plastics. The arc lamp processes areas up to 1,000 sq cm and puts out 1-msec pulses of 12 MW. The combination of control and power opens a world of possibilities for making advanced materials.

Those capabilities, coupled with ORNL proprietary "pulse-thermal-processing" technology, already have led to significant advances in fusing wear-resistant coatings to aluminum. Now the team plans to add another component to the mix: flexible electronics, which encompass such devices as flexible solar cells and thin-film transistors for flexible flat-panel displays.

Pulse-thermal processing looks particularly promising as a way to develop more efficient solar cells, according to ORNL engineers.

This research was funded by the Laboratory Directed Research and Development program.

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