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Earth-Abundant Thin-Film Solar Cells as a Sustainable Solar Energy Pathway

Project Overview

The majority of the 15 terawatts (1012 W) of new power needed across the globe by 2050 must come from CO2 –free sources. Solar photovoltaic electricity technology is considered one of the top choices to meet this need, but must be made sustainable from economic, environmental, and societal perspectives. Our objective is to develop the concepts, materials, and processes necessary to economically produce environmentally friendly thin-film solar cells from earth-abundant, environmentally benign (EAEB) materials. We have assembled a multi-disciplinary team representing the disciplines of physics, materials science, engineering, chemistry, socioeconomics, environmental science, and education to address these complex issues.

To create an Sustainable Energy Pathway (SEP) based on solar energy generated by EAEB materials, we will integrate systematic sustainability analyses that include:

  1. Quantification of the environmental and societal impacts;
  2. Identification of economically viable directions; and
  3. Comprehensive education and outreach activities.

These goals will be achieved through: Thrust 1: Scientific and technology innovation in earth-abundant, thin-film solar cells; Thrust 2: Sustainability assessment of the new technology and products; and Thrust 3: Education, Outreach, and Technology Transfer (E.O.T.T.) of the new technology and products may introduce added costs to a particular solar cell technology.

We will systematically analyze the sustainability of our new solar cell systems and manufacturing process through life cycle sustainability assessments (LCSA) of viable environmental, economic, and sociopolitical (EES) measures. We will develop and implement a dynamic, reiterative working flowchart where different scenarios will be re-iteratively generated and assessed by our research team and the stakeholders of PV systems, followed by a sound, integrated LCSA and structural equation modeling (SEM) framework. To address education/workforce development, we will target critical educational goals for students at all levels. Seven doctoral and six undergraduate students will be supported by this project each year. These students will have a primary faculty advisor but be advised by a group of faculty in each thrust area. This approach will further reinforce synergy, broaden educational goals, and build a true team philosophy.

This project will yield at least two scientific impacts:

  1. Thorough understanding of the fundamental science and engineering issues that are critical for realizing economically viable, environmentally benign, earth-abundant solar cells
  2. New paradigms for science and education in renewable energy and, specifically, sustainable solar photovoltaics

diagram of overlaps betwen scientific innovation, sustainability, and public awareness

As an outgrowth, we expect to develop an understanding of environmental, societal, and economic issues so that recommendations can be made to ensure that earth-abundant solar cell technologies will lead to a sustainable solar energy pathway. The proposed approach will be broadly and transformatively applicable in assessing the sustainability of other solar cell technologies and manufacturing processes as well as other renewable energy pathways.

Conceptual Framework and Hypothesis

Proposed frameword for understanding the sustainability of a viable PV system

Pictured above is our proposed conceptual framework for understanding the sustainability of a viable PV system, which is collectively defined by the Environmental, Economic, and Sociopolitical (EES) triangle. Critical measures for each of the EES scenarios will be generated from the LCSA from inputs of Thrust 1 (Task 2.1). The changes in EES sustainability will be independently modeled with LCSA (Task 2.2) and integrated using various structural equation models (SEMs) (Task 2.3).

A set of initial scenarios for EES sustainability will be independently modeled with quantitative measures for the variables for each life cycle phase of the PV systems, including efficiency breakthroughs, choice of raw materials, solar cell configuration, and manufacturing protocols. A preliminary list of parameters that will be varied is shown in the above figure.

For example, in the first life cycle phase, required raw materials will be varied. These materials include not only the proposed EAEB materials but also other materials (e.g., solvents and powders used in cell synthesis and other materials used in module manufacturing and maintenance). In the second and third phases of LCSA, material synthesis and module fabrication and manufacturing protocols will be varied. We will also develop different scenarios for the balance of system (BOS) because the different EAEB thin-film cells may require different amounts of support and other BOS components. Similarly, the installation, use, and end-of-life management parameters are expected to be different among the EAEB materials and from other PV systems. As shown in the figure above, the number of scenarios increases rapidly as different parameter combinations and values are used in each one of the LCSA phases.


LCA Model Download

Provided below are the statistic models we used for the paper entitled 'Causality in Social Life Cycle Impact Assessment (SLCIA)', which was published in Int. J of Life Cycle Assessment in July 2015. There are three statistic models we used for the paper: one Partial Least Square-SEM model, one covariance based-SEM, and one Bayesian network model. The detailed description on each model and the software used can be found in the 'readme' file. Download LCA Software Files

Economic Data

Publications and Presentations

  • Wu, R., P. Fan, and J. Chen. Incorporating culture into sustainable development: A cultural sustainability index framework for green buildings. Sustainable Development. DOI: 10.1002/sd.1608
  • Fan, Yi, et al. (2015) Applications of Structural Equation Modeling (SEM) in Ecological Research: An Updated Review. Ecological Processes, 2015. (Submitted)
  • Fan, Y., Wu, R., Chen, J., Apul, D.S. (2015) A Review of Social Life Cycle Assessment Methodologies, In Muthu S (ed), Social life cycle assessment. Springer, pp. 1-23.
  • Wu, S.R. J. Chen, D. Apul, P. Fan, Y. Yan, and Y. Fan. 2015. Causality in Social Life Cycle Impact Assessment (SLCIA). Journal of Life Cylce Ananlysis. DOI: 10.1007/s11367-015-0915-6
  • Fan, Y., Wu, R., Chen, J., Apul, D.S. (2015) A Review of Social Life Cycle Assessment Methodologies, In Muthu S (ed), Social life cycle assessment. Springer, pp. 1-23.
  • Wu, R., D. Yang, J Chen. 2014. Social Life Cycle Assessment revisited. Sustainability. 6(7): 4200-4226.

Team Members

Dr. Jiquan Chen Professor, Michigan State University
Dr. Defne Apul Associate Professor, University of Toledo
Ruqun Wu (Susie) PhD Student, Michigan State University
Yi Fan (Angela) PhD Student, Michigan State University


Center for Global Change and Earth Observations

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Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI 48823