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Automating a solar cell research platform: A smart lab for greener energy

Solar Cell Automation Platform

Today’s chemistry labs are about working smarter, not harder. Higher reproducibility and speed are increasing throughput and research quality. No longer saddled with tedious, repetitive tasks, scientists are finally being freed to focus on more creative aspects of their work.

This article features Dr. Daniel Chartrand, Ph.D. and the automation platform he built at the University of Montreal (U of M). The platform is intended to accelerate the University's research on solar cells, for greener, cleaner energy. 

 

Dr. Chartrand needed to automate the fabrication and characterization of small test solar cells in inert atmosphere enclosures.

 
Solar cells

Solar cells generate energy when light, or photons, are absorbed by semiconducting materials and converted into electricity. Solar cell devices are the electrical building blocks of solar panels. Commonly used to produce clean energy, they can also detect light and measure its intensity.

Solar cell production isn’t always environmentally friendly due to the materials and energy it consumes. That’s why researchers worldwide are seeking better ways to produce them.

Dr. Chartrand’s system provides researchers at the U of M chemistry lab with a fast automation platform to explore new solar cell materials and production methods.

 

Automation challenges

The glass substrates needed for this research are delicate. Each must be carefully handled inside an inert atmosphere chamber under exactly the same conditions. This called for a small, compact, but highly precise robot able to maneuver in a cramped space. In addition, the platform's components needed to affordable, but highly reliable, and easy to use.

Solutions 

For the robot component Dr. Chartrand selected the world's smallest six-axis robotic arm, the Meca500. Mounting the robot on a linear axis greatly enhanced its reach, beyond what would have been possibly gained from using a bigger robot. The robot's minute and reproducible positioning removed the need for an alignment system using vision or other means. 

From manual to robotized movements

 First, the robot places a rack on its base. Then, it transfers a glass substrate from the base to the spin-coater. Next, a liquid handler prepares and deposits liquids on the glass substrate, followed by a heating plate for annealing (heat treatment). Once a set time is reached, the robot removes the glass substrate from the plate, flips it, and deposits it in a tray, which once full is loaded by the robot into a vacuum chamber for metal deposition. 
 
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Benefits

Thanks to this platform: Throughput is increased by a factor of 10. Minute, reproducible movements are possible, so are variable solution preparations and annealing times. This translates into higher research quality. Above all, Dr. Chartrand’s automation frees researchers from the tedious, repetitive aspects of their work so they can focus on innovating, in service of the environment.

 

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About Dr. Chartrand:

Dr. Daniel Chartrand holds a Ph.D. in Coordination Chemistry from the University of Montreal, where he has been working for the past fourteen years. He's currently a Research Advisor at the Department of Chemistry's Laboratory of Analysis of Materials' and Molecules' Photoactivity (LAMP). Dr. Chartrand has developed a passion for designing and implementing automations to enhance throughput of analytical techniques, such as this robotized characterization of solar devices.

The University of Montreal:

The Université de Montréal is one of the world’s leading research universities. Established in 1878, in Montreal, Quebec, the university aims to contribute to societal wellness by placing itself at the forefront of knowledge.  With this goal, the university inaugurated a new state of the art science complex known as  the MIL Campus in 2019, for cutting-edge research. Learn more >




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