Printed solar cells bring new possibilities for energy generation in infrastructure

A new method of generating solar power that can be applied with double-sided tape could be generating renewable energy on a commercial scale within the next few years. 

Traditional solar panels can help cut energy bills but often have prohibitive entry fees to manufacture and install. Alongside this, the weight of solar panels means they’re not able to be used on certain roofs and surfaces.

To address these limitations, researchers from the University of Newcastle’s Centre of Organic Electronics have found a method of creating ultralightweight solar cells that cost less than $10 per square metre to produce at scale.

The technology has been in development by the Centre of Organic Electronics for more than 20 years and uses a conventional printer to print electronic inks onto plastic sheets less than a millimetre thin.

Compared to silicon-based solar panels, the organic printed solar cells are not as efficient. Solar cells generate around 10 to 20 per cent of the electricity that a traditional solar panel would. However, the organic printed solar cells are much easier to install, only requiring a strip of double-sided tape. This means the total price of installation is much lower than the cost of installing a traditional solar panel.

The technology has entered into commercial scale testing at Newcastle supply chain company CHEP’s pallet repair facility. Testing includes more than 200 square metres of solar cells installed by five people in one day and will provide the research team with valuable data over a six-month period on how to improve the efficiencies of the technology.

Paul Dastoor, Professor of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Newcastle, leads the team of 30 researchers on the project. He says the accessibility of the technology could lead to renewable energy generation for hundreds or possibly even thousands of buildings in the near future.

“I believe that this technology is going to change the way in which buildings are viewed as assets, in the sense that they will be able to add value to developers beyond the structure’s original purpose,” Prof.  Dastoor says.

“Our built environment has so much space where the cells could easily be installed. If developers take advantage of the technology across the enormous amount of roofs, walls and windows in our urban spaces, we would be able to generate electricity from almost anywhere in our cities.”

The organic printed solar cells are around 300 times lighter than a traditional silicon-based solar panel.

Prof. Dastoor estimates that if the technology was used across every house in New South Wales, it would have the equivalent output of an entire power station.

The cells have been tested in all weather conditions and last for around two to three years before needing to be replaced. The research team has also begun investigating possible methods of recycling the cells at the end of their lifespan.

A wine label printer at the University of Newcastle’s laboratory currently manufactures hundreds of metres of the material per day. However, Prof. Dastoor says that upgrading production with a larger-scale printer would increase this output to kilometres.

“No other renewal energy technology can be manufactured as quickly,” he says.

“The low cost and high speed at which this technology can be deployed is exciting. We need to find solutions – and quickly – to reduce demand on base-load power, especially as we approach another Australian  summer.”

The cells have achieved a Technology Readiness Level of eight, which Prof. Dastoor says is essentially considered green-lit. The research team aims to further improve the energy output of the technology, after having double it in less than one year.

“We are right at the final stages before full commercialisation and we estimate the technology will become cost-competitive with other technologies within two to three years.”

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