Infoscience

Thesis

Ultra-light photovoltaic composite sandwich structures

The ultra-light photovoltaic sandwich structure is a new multifunctional structure concept enabling weight and thus energy to be saved in high-tech solutions such as solar cars, solar planes or satellites. The novelty of this approach is to use solar cells as a load carrying element in the structure. The aim of this work was to investigate the failure mechanisms of such ultra-light sandwich structure and their correlation with microstructure, processing pressure, and strength in order to obtain optimal design and processing. To this end, composite sandwich structures were extensively studied with weights in the range of 650 – 850 g/m2, and comprising one 140 µm thick skin made of 0/90° carbon fiber-reinforced plastic (CFRP), one skin made of 130 µm thick mono-crystalline silicon solar cells, and a 29 kg/m3 honeycomb core. As a first step, core-to-skin bonding in a symmetric (CFRP / core / CFRP) sandwich, for which a design criterion was lacking, was especially studied. An adhesive deposition technique was developed enabling the adhesive weight used for core-to-skin bonding to be tailored. Based on adhesive contact angles, the formation of the adhesive fillets between honeycomb cell walls and skin was modeled. Core / skin debonding energy was measured and compared to core tearing energy measured with a new video-based method, and the failure mechanisms during skin peeling were investigated. It was thus ascertained that, to provide the highest debonding energy-to-weight ratio, the optimal adhesive weight was 35-40 g/m2. Furthermore, in contrast with classic sandwich structures with thicker skins, it was observed that the bending strength of the ultra-light sandwich panels increased with adhesive weight. This was due to the formation of adhesive fillets, which significantly increased the bending stiffness of the thin CFRP skin, and thus increased the compressive load causing local instability of the skin. Models taking into account the increased skin stiffness showed that the best adhesive quantity required to increase the strength-to-weight ratio was ∼40 g/m2. In a second step, the influence of processing pressure on the morphology and strength of symmetric (CFRP / core / CFRP) ultralight sandwich structures was investigated by using one-shot vacuum bag processing. This showed that higher processing pressures caused the formation of larger adhesive fillets and an increased waviness of the CFRP skin on vacuum bag side. These two effects had conflicting impacts on the strength of the structure. Waviness of the skin favored local instabilities, whereas adhesive menisci stabilized the skin. Modeling of the local instability of the skin by taking into account the waviness of the skin and the size of the menisci as a function of processing pressure enabled an optimal processing pressure of 0.7 bar to be identified, giving the highest strength-to-weight ratio. The third step of the study was devoted to the mechanical analysis of the mono-crystalline silicon solar cells. The brittle behavior of the cells was confirmed, and the Weibull failure probability curve was established with the mean tensile strength at 221 MPa. It was demonstrated by experimental testing and finite element modeling (FEM) that the low strength of the cells compared to the intrinsic strength of silicon (∼6.9 GPa) was not due to surface texturation of the cells used for increased efficiency, but to more severe surface or edge defects. FEM also showed that no significant reinforcing effect of the cells could be obtained with polymer encapsulation. In addition, thermo-mechanical stresses due to a mismatch of the coefficient of thermal expansion (CTE) between the Si cells and the polymer encapsulation were found to be negligible. In order to protect the cells against the environment, encapsulation of the cells was successfully carried out, using highly transparent fluoropolymer films treated with SiO2 plasma sputtering for improved adhesion, together with silicone adhesive. Finally, the integration of solar cells as a photovoltaic skin of an ultra-light sandwich structure was achieved using thin stress transfer ribbons to ensure load transfer between adjacent cells. It was observed that the cells were not damaged by sandwich panel processing, even in curved panels, thus showing that the processing windows of the different constituents were compatible. The asymmetric (Si / core / CFRP) photovoltaic sandwich structure with a weight equal to 800 g/m2 and a specific power density equal to ∼250 W/kg (i.e. 20 times more than standard commercial photovoltaic panels) demonstrated an equilibrated mechanical behavior, i.e. the CFRP skin, reinforcing ribbons, and solar cells had similar failure loads.

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