Saturday, 27 July 2013

CTRL+P: Printing Australia's largest solar cells
7 Jun 2013

Using the same technology needed to print a T shirt, scientists have produced the largest flexible, plastic solar cells in Australia-10 times the size that they were previously able to.

A team of researchers from the University of Melbourne, CSIRO and Monash University have produced the largest flexible solar cells in Australia. They are now able to print organic photovoltaic cells the size of an A3 sheet of paper thanks to a new printer installed at the CSIRO. The scientists are part of a collaboration between research and industry partners called the Victorian Organic Solar Cell Consortium (VICOSC).

The new printer, worth AU$200,000, is a big step up for the VICOSC team. In just three years they have gone from making cells the size of a fingernail to cells 10 cm². Now with the new printer they have jumped to cells that are 30 centimetres wide and can roll out 10 metres of solar cells per minute.

VICOSC project co-ordinator and University of Melbourne researcher David Jones says one of the great advantages of the group's approach is that they're using existing and affordable printing techniques, making it a very accessible technology. "We're using the same techniques you would use if you were screen printing an image onto a T-Shirt", says Dr Jones, from the University's Bio21 Institute and School of Chemistry.

Using semiconducting inks, the researchers print the cells straight onto paper-thin flexible plastic or steel. With the ability to print at speeds of up to 10 metres per minute, this means they can produce one cell every two seconds. As the researchers continue to scale up their equipment, the possibilities will become even greater.

"Eventually we see these being laminated to windows that line skyscrapers", Dr Jones says. "By printing directly to materials like steel, we'll also be able to embed cells onto roofing materials". "There are so many things we can do with cells this size", het them into advertising signage, powering lights and other interactive elements. We can even embed them into laptop cases to provide backup power for the computers inside".

According to CSIRO materials scientist Scott Watkins, the organic photovoltaic cells, which produce 10 50 watts of power per m², could even be used to improve the efficiency of more traditional silicon solar panels.

"The different types of cells capture light from different parts of the solar spectrum. So rather than being competing technologies, they are actually very complementary", Dr Watkins says. The scientists predict the future energy mix for the world, including Australia, will rely on many non-traditional energy sources.

"We need to be at the forefront of developing new technologies that match our solar endowment, stimulate our science and support local, high-tech manufacturing", Dr Watkins says. "While the consortium is focused on developing applications with current industrial partners there are opportunities to work with other companies through training programs or pilot-scale production trials", he says.

The Victorian Organic Solar Cell Consortium is a research collaboration between CSIRO, The University of Melbourne, Monash University, Blue-Scope Steel, Robert Bosch SEA, Innovia Films and Innovia Security. It is supported by the Victorian State Government and the Australian Government through the Australian Renewable Energy Agency.