Air Force awards UToledo $12.5 million to develop Space-based
Solar Energy Sheets
The military is adding fuel to the momentum of
physicists at The University of Toledo who are advancing
new frontiers in thin-film, highly efficient, low-cost
photovoltaic technology to ensure a clean energy future.
The U.S. Air Force awarded UToledo $12.5 million to develop
photovoltaic energy sheets that would live in space and
harvest solar energy to transmit power wirelessly to Earth-based
receivers or to other orbital or aerial instrumentation, such as
UToledo physicists will develop flexible solar cell sheets, each
roughly the size of a piece of paper, that can be assembled and
interconnected into much larger structures.
Although UToledo’s focus does not include engineering the
interconnected arrays, the vision is potentially massive: one
space-based solar array could include tens of millions of
sheets and extend to sizes as large as a square mile — that’s
more than three quarters the size of UToledo Main Campus. One
array at this size could generate about 800 megawatts of
electrical power — just shy of the power produced by the Davis
Besse power plant between Toledo and Cleveland.
“With 37% stronger sunlight above the atmosphere than on a
typical sunny day here on Earth’s surface, orbital solar arrays
offer a critical opportunity to harness renewable energy,
achieve sustainability goals and provide strategic power for a
wide range of orbital and airborne technologies,” said Dr.
Randall Ellingson, professor in the UToledo Department of
Physics and Astronomy and member of the UToledo Wright Center
for Photovoltaics Innovation and Commercialization who will lead
the five-year project.
“This $12.5 million award recognizes our own University of
Toledo as a national leader in solar cell technologies and in
photovoltaic energy research,” said Congresswoman Marcy
Kaptur. “UToledo's broad partnerships with industry,
government and academia represent the best of us and will help
cement our region as a player for generations to come in solar
manufacturing, research and development.”
Building on UToledo’s more than 30-year history advancing solar
technology to power the world using clean energy, the physicists
will continue developing the material science and photovoltaic
technologies that are highly efficient, lightweight and durable
in an outer-space environment.
They’re building tandem solar cells — two different solar cells
stacked on top of each other that more efficiently harvest the
sun’s spectrum — on very thin, flexible supporting materials.
“We have had great success accelerating the performance of solar
cells and drawing record levels of power from the same amount of
sunlight using the tandem technique with what are called
perovskites,” Ellingson said.
Perovskites are compound materials with a special crystal
structure formed through chemistry.
The team will sandwich a variety of combinations of solar cells,
including perovskites, silicon, cadmium telluride and copper
indium gallium selenide, to raise the ceiling on what is
The team will explore lightweight, flexible supporting material
to create the large solar cell sheets. Those materials also need
to be resilient, ultra-thin and tolerant to high and low
temperatures. Semitransparent and very thin ceramic, plastics
and glass are under consideration.
“Professor Ellingson and his team have demonstrated their
ability to provide the Air Force with outstanding results over
the years and the University is pleased that Representative
Kaptur prioritizes projects that both advance the nation’s
leadership in cutting-edge solar energy technology and provide
the Department of Defense with the highest level of support from
University research,” said Dr. Frank Calzonetti, UToledo
vice president of research.
In 2019 the U.S. Air Force awarded Ellingson’s team $7.4 million
to develop solar technology to power space vehicles using
“The Air Force has demanding specifications for its spaced-based
power systems, and the advances being made in thin-film
photovoltaics at UToledo coupled with our new photovoltaic
sheets concept provide an avenue to meet them,” said Dr.
Michael Heben, UToledo professor of physics and McMaster
endowed chair. “The faculty and staff at UToledo’s Wright Center
for Photovoltaics are proud to receive this award and excited
about the challenge.”
In 2019 the U.S. Department of Energy awarded UToledo $4.5
million to develop the next-generation solar panel by bringing a
new, ultra-high efficiency material to the consumer market. As
part of the project, Dr. Yanfa Yan, UToledo professor of
physics, is working with the National Renewable Energy
Laboratory and First Solar to develop industrially relevant
methods for both the fabrication and performance prediction of
low-cost, efficient and stable perovskite thin-film PV modules.
Also in 2019 UToledo was part of a $3.9 million award led by
Colorado State University to collaborate with the National
Renewable Energy Laboratory, First Solar and the University of
Illinois at Chicago on a U.S. Department of Energy-funded
project to improve the voltage and power produced by
cadmium-telluride-based solar cells.
UToledo’s Wright Center for Photovoltaics Innovation and
Commercialization is a founding member of an organization called
the U.S. Manufacturing of Advanced Perovskites Consortium, which
is focused on moving a breakthrough new technology out of the
lab and into the marketplace to enhance economic and national
security. Partners include the U.S. Department of Energy’s
National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo.;
Washington Clean Energy Testbeds at the University of
Washington; University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; and six
domestic companies that are working to commercialize the
The University created the Wright Center for Photovoltaics
Innovation and Commercialization in January 2007 with an $18.6
million award from the Ohio Department of Development in
response to a proposal led by Dr. Robert Collins,
Distinguished University Professor and NEG Endowed Chair of
Silicate and Materials Science. Matching contributions of $30
million from federal agencies, universities and industrial
partners helped to launch the center, which works to strengthen
the photovoltaics and manufacturing base in Ohio through
materials and design innovation.
“Solar electricity now competes economically with fossil-fueled
and nuclear electricity while avoiding significant atmospheric
carbon emissions which drive climate change,” Ellingson said.
“UToledo has assisted in driving down the cost of solar,” Heben
said. “Over the past 15 years the cost of solar has been reduced
by a factor of 10, while the amount of solar annually deployed
has grown by a factor of 100, currently amounting to about 2% of
the U.S. electricity supply. Importantly, the transition to
clean solar electricity that is occurring also is creating
tremendous new job growth opportunities in many parts of our