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Paper solar cells by 2015

18 May 2011

Ultra-affordable solar cells, produced on paper substrates, could start being industrialised in less than five years from now.

A prototype of a foldable solar cell produced on paper, developed at MIT. Image: MITR&D into printed photovoltaics (PV) on paper at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)-Eni Solar Frontiers Centre in Boston, the US, is progressing quickly and scaling up the technology should start to occur in 2-3 years' time.

Just over one year ago a working demonstrator of an LED light powered by a paper solar cell was unveiled, helping to publicise the centre, which opened in May 2010. Italian energy company Eni and MIT have an extensive programme in place to develop next-generation renewable energy technologies, including solar cells.

R&D within the Solar Frontiers Centre is focused on several areas including nano-structured thin-film PVs, materials design for solar energy capture and storage, and direct conversion of sunlight into fuels from water, mimicking the photosynthesis process. The majority of projects will not translate to industrial activity before the second half of this decade, though a couple of initiatives, including the paper solar cell initiative, could be ready for production around 2015.

Solar cells printed on paper substrates could help to open up opportunities for cheaper PV modules, where high efficiencies and very long lifetimes are not a requisite for the application.

German efforts

Various technologies, including self-repairing solar cells, have been developed at the Solar Frontiers Centre. This proof-of-concept contains a photoactive solution made up of a mix of self-assembling molecules (in a glass cylinder held in place by metal clamp) with two electrodes protruding from the top, one made of platinum (the bare wire) and the other of silver (in a glass tube). Image: MITIn Germany ultra-low cost solar cells are the subject of R&D led by a team at the institute for print and media technology at Chemnitz University of Technology (pmTUC). The aim of the government-funded Mass-printed Organic Paper Solar cells (MOPS) project, which ends in June 2011, is to develop a process for making PVs so simple that these devices can potentially be produced on conventional printing machines.

The aim is for 3.5% efficiency, while cells must have a lifetime of at least 100 days and be fully recyclable. Current efficiencies achieved within the project are about 1.3%.

The cell structure developed within MOPS comprises a specially coated paper substrate, a conductive silver grid, zinc oxide transfer layer, semiconducting polymer pn junction layer and a conductive silver electrode layer.

New uses

Paper solar cell work carried out by MIT-Eni, and pmTUC and its partners on the MOPs projects, indicates a redefinition of PV technology. Conventional PVs achieve high efficiencies and long lifetimes, using complicated processes and costly materials, such as glass substrates and silicon.

Using efficient processing steps, such as printing and simple materials, paper solar cells are aiming for moderate lifetimes and efficiencies. These characteristics will open diverse opportunities for using PV generated electricity. The energy payback times of such cells will be short, due to the simple processes and materials used.

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