A University of Central Florida researcher has received $400,000 from Florida’s Renewable Energy and Energy Efficient Technologies grant program to simplify the manufacturing process and efficiency of solar cells.

Using a three-pronged approach and working with both sides of the cell, Ngwe Zin, a researcher at UCF’s Florida Solar Energy Center (FSEC), has set his sights on increasing a cell’s efficiency in converting sunshine to energy 2-3 percent above the industry standard.

“Increasing efficiency requires different manufacturing methods,” Zin said.  He intends to do that by focusing on developing cells with the highest possible ability to absorb light, and the lowest possible recombination and resistance or obstacles to the flow of energy in the cell.

“The simplified way of developing high efficiency bifacial silicon solar cells proposed in this project will reduce the manufacturing steps by at least 20 percent, which could not only increase efficiency, but reduce production costs,” Zin said.

The award comes at a time when the return on investment in solar is high – about 14 percent, said FSEC Director Jim Fenton.

“We have gotten to the point where putting solar on roofs makes good economic sense,” Fenton said.  “Now we are trying to make panels more efficient by being more creative.”

The project has garnered matching funds from FSEC, the BRIDG (Bridging the Innovation Development Gap) consortium in Osceola County and the United Kingdom-based manufacturing and research company Oxford Instruments for a total project grant of $762,681.

Zin’s research will focus on bifacial cells, which are designed to allow light to enter from both sides.  For a typical panel on a rooftop, that means light from the sun would enter the cell from the top and any residual rays would pass through the bottom where a layer of silicon will reflect it back into the panel.

The process allows the panel to capture extra energy by improving the light to energy conversion rate, results in a lower operating temperature since the sunlight is not trapped but is instead converted to energy, and will ultimately improve the efficiency of the panels, making them more attractive to buyers.

Zin came to UCF eight months ago from the Australian National University, where he received the Australian government administered Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) postdoctoral fellowship from 2013 to 2016.

He envisions bolstering photovoltaic manufacturing in Florida by offering manufacturers, installers and developers a more efficient product.

While Florida ranks third in the nation for rooftop solar potential, the state ranks 12th for cumulative solar capacity installed according to a report by the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA).

The manufacturing of panels has declined in recent years due to a combination of competition from foreign markets and falling prices for alternative energy sources such natural gas and steaming coal, and is expected to uptick over the next five years according to the SEIA report.

Efforts such as Zin’s  to make manufacturing of PV more cost effective will be critical to industry seeking to capitalize on a stronger competitive marketplace, said Raju Nagaiah, a UCF technology transfer  licensing associate who specializes in solar energy market.

Zin said he plans to recruit, retain and encourage students to foster a pipeline of talented workers in the PV industry and that technologies developed out of this project will pave the way for attracting or setting up more PV cell and module manufacturing in the state of Florida.