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Dr Katie Shanks

Exeter researcher secures prestigious national Fellowship to pioneer new generation of solar panels

A Renewable Energy Expert from the University of Exeter has received a prestigious national fellowship to pioneer new research to create ultra-compact and lightweight solar panel technology. 

Dr Katie Shanks, from Exeter’s Renewable Energy department based at the Penryn Campus, Cornwall, has secured a three-year fellowship from the EPSRC, under the David-Clarke Scheme, it has been announced. 

Dr Shanks received just over £350,000 in funding from the EPSRC through the scheme, which is designed to help early-career researchers develop their careers to impact industry within their field of research. The Total funding for the project is £441,247. 

Dr Shanks’ project, called 'Invisible' Solar Technologies from Bio-Inspired Optics’, will focus on investigating optical nanostructures within nature, such as the cabbage white and glass wing butterfly wing scales, for incorporation into new ultra-compact and lightweight solar panel technologies that can be integrated into various smart structures such as laptops, phones, smart cars and smart buildings. 

Speaking of the Fellowship, Dr Shanks said: “Butterflies, like all things within nature, are actually highly optimised systems tweaked over billions of years through evolution.  One particular butterfly for example, the cabbage white, has developed a unique way of quickly warming its flight muscles in the morning. It can be found holding its white wings in a V-shape, which, originally puzzled scientists, but now, has been identified as a form of solar concentration. 

“Solar concentrators are simply things like magnifying lenses or concave mirrors that focus sunlight onto a reduced area of photovoltaic (solar sensitive) material. These optics can reduce the costs of solar panels and even increase the efficiency; but integrating optics into new forms of solar panels produces heavy and bulky designs. 

The butterfly’s wings are however the perfect solar concentrator; extremely lightweight and optimised for all weather conditions. My initial research, analysing the fascinating nanostructures responsible for the cabbage white’s highly reflective, lightweight and surprisingly durable wings, has shown that copying these nanostructures could improve the power to weight ratio of current solar panel technology by as much as 17 times.” 

The project will incorporate key industrial partners in optics, coatings and PV manufacturing to allow real material samples and testing to take place, as well as co-developed product ideas. Dr Shanks said that the aim of the research is to highlight one or more nanostructures and techniques worthy of commercialisation into solar devices 

She said: “The research delves into a variety of nano-fabrication techniques to develop a method to make enhanced solar technology that can be easily integrated into everyday structures such as smart cars, smart phones and of course smart buildings - all of which are absolutely essential as we speed up our progress towards a sustainable carbon neutral future.” 

Date: 30 September 2021