With millions of dollars in backing from the industry and Ohio's Third Frontier, a new research team at Case Western Reserve University is at the center of a global engineering drive to figure out how air pollution, the weather -- and sunlight itself -- can slowly damage a solar panel and reduce its output.
With a name that will the tie the tongues of many, the Solar Durability and Lifetime Extension Center is on a mission to improve the multiple materials and technologies built into every solar panel, every LED light, and a multitude of other materials used in other manufactured products that must stand up to the environment. The idea is to extend their durability and performance.
"What we are seeing is that energy is a big topic," says center director Roger French, a professor of materials science and a 25-year veteran researcher for DuPont. "They (materials and products) are a large investment. And if you can't be comfortable with how long they will last, you will have a major hesitation about whether you should buy it."
Typically, solar panels are guaranteed to last 25 years. Some have been operating for nearly 40 years, and without any maintenance. That's the good news.
The bad news is that over years, the power output of even the best panels slowly decreases. And in cheap panels, it can plummet much sooner.
"Energy technology needs to last 40 to 60 years," says French. "The question comes down to a technology's lifetime performance, not on its initial performance but its lifetime performance. And that is what makes this a scientific challenge -- how do we approach a question that is 50 years long and have confidence that we can figure out solid answers? That is the focus of what we are working on."
French is pretty sure it can be done.
"I think in 10 years, PV (photo-voltaic) modules will be engineered to last 60 years," he says, a few days before the center's grand opening on Thursday.
With a staff of nearly two dozen, including post doctorate, graduate and undergraduate students, the center on the CWRU campus has been busy systematically torturing solar panels from the world's major manufacturers.
The panels -- and just as importantly, the materials from which they are made -- are being subjected to light brighter than sunlight anywhere on earth, temperatures hotter than Death Valley in the summer and colder than an Antarctic winter.
Some are also bathed in corrosive salty fog, others blasted with heat and humidity higher than any jungle. One laboratory apparatus can focus light so that it is 1,200 times brighter than the sun.
The point of all of this abuse is to systematically simulate years of real-world service in only a few months or a couple of years.