Researchers at MIT have developed a new method for creating solar cells that is significantly easier and less-expensive than current production methods by directly printing the components of the solar cell onto pieces of paper or fabric. The technique is conducted in a vacuum, and layers special “inks” in a specific pattern onto the flexible substrate (the paper or fabric on the bottom). The printed solar cell can be bent or folded without losing its ability to conduct electricity.
Led by Professor of Chemical Engineering Karen Gleason, Professor of Electrical Engineering Vladimir Bulovic, and graduate student Miles Barr, the researchers developed a solar cell creation method that differs from current methods in several ways. The printable way uses vapors and relatively low temperatures (less than 120 degrees Celsius) compared to the liquids and high heat needed with current methods.
Current methods are expensive because they require inactive (non-solar) components. Traditionally, to build a solar cell you need the substrate, which is usually glass and supports the photovoltaic material, in addition to a structure to support the substrate, and the installation costs. The cost of all these components can add up to more than the photovoltaic pieces alone. Using readily-available substrates like paper or fabric, makes creating printable solar cells much cheaper.
The major downside to the printable solar cells is that their efficiency is pretty low at only 1%. The researchers are working on this though, and hope to fine-tune the process to increase overall efficiency of the materials. Still, printable solar cells are a significant advancement in solar power technology because it increases the number of objects that could be used to harvest solar power, like solar cells curtains to trap sunlight as it comes through windows.
(via BostInnovation, picture via Patrick Gillooly)