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Solar Energy Research Facility

Photo of the Solar Energy Research Facility.

The exterior stepped clerestory of the Solar Energy Research Facility.

Photovoltaics (PV) and basic energy sciences are two major research areas conducted in the Solar Energy Research Facility (SERF). The building incorporates a multitude of energy saving features that make it one of the government's most energy efficient buildings with 40 percent lower energy costs than similar buildings designed to meet federal energy standards. The SERF houses three adjoining modules each containing a laboratory pod and an office pod. Laboratories in the west module are used to develop semiconductor material for high-efficiency crystalline solar cells. Laboratories in the center module are used to fabricate prototype solar cells and analyze the semiconductor material used to make solar cells, as well as research hydrogen generation and storage. The east module contains labs used to measure and characterize solar cell and module performance. The SERF roof is a platform to ten PV panels that evaluate the performance of integrated PV systems on commercial buildings. The panels generate as much as 12 kilowatts of electricity fed into the power grid.


Converting sunlight into electricity through the development of advanced solid-state materials and devices is the objective of PV at the SERF. This involves R&D in PV materials and devices, measurement and characterization, reliability testing and analysis, and development of new materials and devices such as those used in thermophotovoltaics.

Electronic Materials and Devices

Research on PV materials, devices, and material properties are all performed at the SERF. Work in material technologies includes crystalline silicon and thin-film materials with high-efficiency concepts such as polymer solar cells and nanostructured solar cells. Device processing uses many different techniques to deposit PV materials and process PV devices. Device processing furthers ways in which materials can be combined for deposition and growth.

A photo of a researcher testing photovoltaic cells.

NREL researcher inserts a tray of polymer solar cells into a high vacuum deposition chamber, where metal contacts are deposited onto the solar cells.

A photo of two NREL scientists.

NREL scientists use a pulsed laser deposition chamber to grow solar cell samples in NREL's Solar Energy Research Facility.

Photo of a laser measuring azimuthal dependence.

NREL researchers develop many of their own analytical devices for PV research such as this custom laser equipment for assessing semiconductor crystal structure.

Measurement and Characterization

NREL is the only laboratory in the world to hold accreditations in both 1) photovoltaic secondary cell, and 2) secondary module and primary reference cell calibration. Using sophisticated instruments and techniques, NREL researchers measure, image, and characterize properties of PV and electronic materials, devices, and interfaces. This includes such properties as optical, electrical, material, surface, chemical, and structural performance. Core competencies include analytical microscopy, device performance, electo-optical characterization, and surface analysis.

Reliability Testing and Analysis

Research and development in module packaging improve the long-term reliable performance of PV modules. Researchers develop new materials that can be used for module encapsulants and moisture barrier coatings under a variety of conditions to ensure materials work at the highest efficiency and do not provide a conduction path to the ground.

Development of New Materials and Devices

Thermophotovoltaics (TPV) research at the SERF focuses on developing semiconductor materials and devices that convert radiation from heat energy to electricity, with emphasis on alloys from gallium indium arsenide and indium phosphide arsenide, which can be engineered to achieve low-energy band gaps (0.4 eV to 0.7 eV).

Energy Sciences

Expanding the scientific foundations of renewable energy technologies through research in basic materials science, basic chemical sciences, and carbon-based hydrogen storage is the objective of Energy Sciences.

Basic Materials Science

Basic Materials Science develops materials to improve the efficiency, economy, and environmental acceptability of energy generation, transmission, and use. NREL's research emphasizes semiconductor and condensed matter physics, and high-temperature superconductors and electrochromics.

Basic Chemical Sciences

NREL's experts in basic chemical science perform photochemistry research with an emphasis in photoelectrochemical conversion. Research is conducted on the synthesis and characterization of quantum dots and third-generation solar cells.

Carbon-based Hydrogen Storage

Safe, lightweight, high-density storage of hydrogen has NREL researchers especially motivated for the future of hydrogen economy in supplying energy for heating, cooling, electricity, industrial processes, and transportation. NREL continues to explore the valuable applications of single-wall nanotubes and multiwall nanotubes and has been selected to play a major role in the Center of Excellence for exploratory research in hydrogen storage and nanostructured carbon-containing materials.