27 February 2009

Printable solar cells on the way

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Solar panels could soon be printed in the same way as bank notes, thanks to world-leading innovation by Australian scientists.
Printed solar cells

Victorian Minister for Energy and Resources Peter Batchelor (left) and CSIRO's Future Manufacturing Flagship research leader Gerry Wilson examining a trial print-out of flexible organic solar cells. Credit: CSIRO

SYDNEY: Solar panels could soon be printed in the same way as bank notes, thanks to world-leading innovation by Australian scientists.

Researchers from the Victorian Organic Solar Cell Consortium, which includes scientists from government research agency the CSIRO, the University of Melbourne and Monash University, have developed a new technique that could open up the door for cheap, mass-produced solar cells.

“These solar cells are cutting edge technology and offer advantages over traditional solar technology,” Peter Batchelor, Victorian Minister for Energy and Resources, said at the launch. “The production of these film-like solar cells will be literally as easy as printing money.”

Flexible plastic

The new cells are printed onto a thin flexible plastic, which (unlike existing silicon solar cells) can be easily crafted to fit any rooftop.

Gerry Wilson, a member of the CSIRO team, said humankind has been printing for centuries and this is one of many potential applications for “printable electronics.”

The active ingredients in the new solar cells are thin-printed layers of light-sensitive inks that absorb energy from the Sun. The researchers said that during an ongoing trial period these inks would be tested for maximum efficiency.

Currently, the printable solar cells are two to five per cent efficient, the experts said, something they are trying to improve it “by tweaking the chemical structure” of the inks. Solar cells currently on the market range from 5 to 24 per cent efficiency.

“Forefront of polymer technology”

Jai Singh, a physicist from Charles Darwin University, in the Northern Territory, said that while the technology is still in its infancy, it could provide an economical alternative energy source. “They are cost-effective because the expensive indium tin oxide used in traditional solar cells will be replaced by low cost functionalised graphene layers,” he said.

Australian science minister, Senator Kim Carr, said the trial was an exciting development for the industry. “This research is at the forefront of polymer technology, which has already brought to the world the banknotes used in Australia and 21 other countries. It is an important step in building up the solar industry,” he said.

Andrew Blakers, Director of ARC Centre for Solar Energy Systems at Australian National University said any investment in the industry is always welcomed and will encourage progress in renewable energy sources. “Australian solar industry needs to be encouraged and well funded in order for Australia to take its place as a world leader in this industry,” he said.

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