Tech Insights

Energy and Automation Join Forces: Solar and Robots

August 07, 2023 by David Peterson

The worlds of power and control engineering are collaborating to create a new research robot, scanning multiple materials to configure the most effective material alloy combinations for a more efficient energy future.

Without a doubt, energy production is one of the most crucial elements of modern infrastructure, but have you ever stopped to think about how the essential materials first arrive at solar, wind, or hydro facilities perfectly designed to optimize energy harvesting?

solar robot

Image used courtesy of David Peterson

The first step in any manufacturing process involves researching and designing the best materials to accomplish a specific task. For many alternative-energy-generating technologies like solar or wind, materials must be both strong and resilient enough to withstand terrific dynamic forces and extended exposure to the elements. Once material properties are well-understood, the optimized formula can be sourced in great enough quantities to introduce economies of scale and meet current and future utility demands.

A research team at NC State University announced the creation of an automated robotic work cell solution named RoboMapper to better understand critical material properties and develop effective formulations faster. According to the developers, Robomapper was designed and engineered to accelerate material selection and analysis and find the best formulations to boost energy yield, increase stability and extend operating life.


Robots in Research

Robots used for material development in the lab are generally similar to most common industrial robots. They must be fast, accurate, and capable of handling a wide array of tools to accomplish different tasks. However, material-assessing robots will likely require fewer axes of motion like those seen in factories and warehouses. In this case, laboratories usually rely on SCARA or cartesian-configured systems. 

Many robotic lab tools are designed to replicate the workflows around a researcher, so the scale and footprint of most automation are human-centric. That means most data is obtained from samples on the order of centimeters or inches. 


A comparison of manual and automated laboratory workflows

A comparison of manual and automated laboratory workflows. The final row illustrates how RoboMapper consolidates samples for greater efficiency. Image used courtesy of NCSU


NCSU’s RoboMapper

Professor Aram Amassian, leading the research team from NCSU, offered some insight into the strategy of the RoboMapper automated research process. “Similar information exists on volumes that are orders of magnitude smaller for the same materials. If modern robotics could make smaller samples and place them on a chip with higher density, and other tools could evaluate these materials with the same fidelity as traditional centimeter- and inch-scale samples, then there should be no fidelity lost in the data.” 

Amassian also explained how the RoboMapper introduces a more efficient solution. “The RoboMapper is designed around this concept [of smaller sample sizes]; it leverages tech used in additive manufacturing: modern picoliter volume printing and micropositioning to achieve all of the small-scale data collection.”

As noted, RoboMapper is an automated robotic work cell rather than a single dedicated robot. One section of the cell performs the formulation work, while the other dispenses the formulated alloy, of which multiple samples can be prepared for testing simultaneously. The final step is characterization, which includes a series of tests performed on the samples to record the data. 

In this way, RoboMapper combines various linear axes of motion and end tools to replicate precise research on a miniature scale, with the same integrity and fidelity as any traditional system.

The labeled parts of the RoboMapper system show the consolidated approach to formulation and characterization

The labeled parts of the RoboMapper system show the consolidated approach to formulation and characterization. Image used courtesy of NCSU


Perovskite Materials

Material creation is tricky to automate because solar collection materials are crafted from the atomic level, with crystal structures and alloys mixed and set in the perfect arrays to collect light energy. The NCSU research team has paid particular attention to the category of materials called perovskite.

This material category, commonly used for solar production, involves bonding two positive ions with a third negative ion, often an oxide. Many materials can be combined to create the ions, leading to an entire research category to design the best materials that exhibit the needed qualities for high-efficiency photovoltaic operation. 

For solar production specifically, the perovskite families most commonly investigated include ammonium and metal positive ions, along with iodine negative ions, formed into complex alloys. Some of these alloys have been shown to reach efficiencies above 25% with higher efficiencies possible. For photovoltaic cells, efficiencies above 30% would be considered an efficient, high-yield material.


Initial Research Conclusions

While the RoboMapper remains poised to make great strides in developing new perovskite alloys, some initial findings are worthy of note. For example, Amassian mentioned that large-scale lab processes generate larger plastic and glass waste byproducts, and through miniaturization and consolidation, RoboMapper can reduce lab waste significantly. 

Perhaps more important is the energy savings the automated, robotic system delivers with each analysis. Even though the energy required to accomplish its task is relatively minimal, energy is a costly resource that packs an environmental impact. As energy demands increase, so will the need for increased energy supply. Any process that introduces energy efficiency and reduces costs will likely receive a warm welcome from researchers and material scientists.

Research highlights and data from NCSU’s team demonstrate how innovation, engineering collaboration, and a combination of materials, mechanics, automation and controls can work together to build and power a better future.