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Using AI to capture sunlight

Through the innovative use of robotic automation and AI learning, a new Monash University ‘toolbox’ is available to develop, test, characterise and optimise new materials for photovoltaic cells.

The effects of climate change are calling for a rapid transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. The development of new materials for energy generation and storage will drive this transition. Key to these efforts is the optimal design of the material systems involved in these devices and products. With a seemingly infinite set of materials and design possibilities, finding the best system for a particular application is like searching for a needle in a haystack.

Monash University Prof. Udo Bach, leader of the Australian Centre for Advanced Photovoltaics (ACAP) Monash Node, has developed the High Throughput Solution-Processable Photovoltaic Materials Discovery Facility (a ‘Materials Discovery Toolbox’) – a world-first research tool which introduces elements of automation and artificial intelligence to the field of materials discovery.

The main purpose of Materials Discovery Toolbox is to accelerate the development of novel, printable, photovoltaic materials such as lead halide perovskites and their lead-free analogues. This ground-breaking platform entails three integrated, robotic, modular glovebox sections. The first section synthesizes chemical solutions and inks from liquid and solid chemical precursors and solvents. Essentially it is a fully automated ‘lab bench’ that carries out chemical reactions with high accuracy and reproducibility. The second section produces thin films from these inks via solution processing techniques like spin-coating. The third, and final, section hosts the necessary characterisation tools to determine the optical, electronic and structural properties of these films.

The glovebox-based modular chambers allow the creation of specialised environments for the reactions and techniques involved in the process such as the handling of moisture and oxygen-sensitive chemicals, intermediates and films.

Workflow across the toolbox is actively controlled in real time by integrated machine learning tools. Its AI-driven rapid optimisation of the series of activities allows for precise fabrication and testing of vast numbers of materials and structures while simultaneously cataloguing and ‘learning’ from the results of prior iterations.

Construction of the High Throughput Solution-Processable Photovoltaic Materials Discovery Facility was made possible with a grant from the Australia Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) and ACAP, with additional funding from Monash University, ANFF, and the ARC Centre of Excellence in Exciton Science.

The new research platform will be hosted at the Melbourne Centre for Nanofabrication (MCN) and managed jointly by ANFF and MCN. With a significant amount of its time available for use by ANFF clients, the Materials Discovery Toolbox facility will go online in 2023.

‘ANFF is the best place to put complex and innovative tools so that they get the best chance to have an impact. ANFF enables a greater impact due to its open access nature and the supporting expertise,’ ANFF CEO Jane Fitzpatrick said regarding ANFF’s financial and logistical commitment to the Materials Discovery Toolbox. Since the fabrication of energy materials will involve additional processes that are not going to be contained within the glovebox, housing this facility within ANFF’s national network will facilitate optimum coordination within the fabrication ecosystem.

The Materials Discovery Toolbox leverages physical processing with AI development to streamline the slow, laborious process of finding the right combination of material and structure to have the desired final photovoltaic device properties. When fully up and running, the platform will be able to fabricate and characterise one sample every 3-5 minutes, allowing the analysis of about 3000 samples a week when operated 24/7.

While this facility was designed primarily with solar technology in mind, the ANFF input from the earliest stages of design ensured that the platform can be adapted to support a wide variety of other users. The High Throughput Solution-Processable Photovoltaic Materials Discovery Facility is a unique system, and no comparable platform is currently available elsewhere in the world. By providing the ability to create better material systems in short time frames, the Australian research and industry community can leapfrog the competition and come to market with proprietary formulations with speeds that have not previously been available.