Printable solar panels could power our laptops and rooftops – even our skyscrapers – sooner than we think after a new solar-cell printer, the nation’s largest, was recently installed at the CSIRO.
The printer, worth $200,000 and funded by the Victorian Organic Solar Cell Consortium (VOSCC), is able to print organic solar cells ten times the size of what was previously possible, and straight onto paper-thin plastic or steel.
It’s a faster and more cost-effective method than solar panels using traditional silicon cells (used to power objects like our calculators) because it uses organic polymers (a bonding of different materials) that absorb sunlight , generate charges and produce electricity.
Because these organic solar panels are more related to materials like cling wrap they are thin, flexible and printable.
The cells produce 10-50 watts of power per square metre (50 watts is enough to power a small laptop computer) and they can be printed fast, at speeds of up to ten metres per minute.
But the printer is not entirely new technology, the CSIRO says. It’s similar to what you would use to screen-print T-shirts.
CSIRO materials scientist Dr Scott Watkins said the aim was to make the technology as accessible as possible.
“We’re developing the technologies to work with existing printing processes, so the printers that we’ve got are the same sort of printers that you could use for paper, or even things like t-shirts, and we’re developing our processes to be able to use these existing printing technologies so that the barrier to entry for manufacturing these new printed solar cells is as low as possible,” Dr Watkins said.
The printer represents a significant step forward for the VOSCC team, which is made up of a consortium of the CSIRO and the Melbourne and Monash Universities, who have been working on printing solar cells since 2007.
The size of the solar cells were increased to an A3 size sheet of paper from the size of a coin in only three years.
The CSIRO says the possibilities are growing and there are companies interested in taking the technology commercial.
“Eventually we see these being laminated to windows that line skyscrapers,” VICOSC project coordinator Dr David Jones said.
“By printing directly to materials like steel, we'll also be able to embed cells onto roofing materials.”
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