Helmholtz Zentrum Berlin


Watching the Secret Lives of Atoms

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The ordinary life of an atom would be fairly quiet — if it weren’t for the neighbours. Spray some atoms of a different kind in layers on top of each other, and things get complex and unpredictable very quickly.

Which is why the production of thin film solar cells is still mostly trial and error, with the real processes in the thin films still barely understood. But thin films are very promising for more efficiency in solar cells and elsewhere, so scientists and engineers are bent on finding ways to observe the life of atoms while it happens — live, in all its details and entanglements — like a nanoscale Truman Show.

The plan is that EMIL, the new Energy Materials In-Situ Lab at HZB, will be exactly that: A place to observe atoms during thin film production.

However, to get there, the EMIL-team needs to build 2000 square metres of new facilities, directly adjacent to BESSY II, the synchrotron, where their colleagues run electrons near the speed of light and don’t appreciate vibrations of any kind. So it’s construction on tiptoes. They also need some changes at the beamlines that involve squeezing two new undulators in a very narrow space and at a nearly impossible angle. And then they need a complete lab with a fully automated thin film production line in a tightly sealed 9-metre vacuum vessel with various detector stations inside. All that in a very short time and without interfering with regular BESSY II operations. Sounds fun? It is.

Also at HZB: PVcomB, the Centre of Excellence for Thin-Film- and Nanotechnology for Photovoltaics Berlin

And: How a solar cell works (video) (German version)

open project at HZB site

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