Company says printed plastic solar cells are PV's future

With the market for photovoltaic solar panels growing ever larger, a new a generation of solar technology could help ensure that the technology reaches areas of the world where it is needed most.

While silicon based photovoltaics have seen widespread and increasing use over the past years, there are growing calls for a solar technology that is suited to emerging economies.

That is according to Simon Bransfield-Garth, CEO of solar company Eight19, who believes printed plastic PV offers an answer to providing solar energy to large populations of emerging economies, and is “crucial to the future of the solar industry”. 

Speaking to TechEye he outlined how lightweight and flexible printed plastic PV can offer solar energy to areas where the needs of users are different to those of mature economies – but no less vital in terms of reducing carbon emissions.

“Millions of people around the world are having to rely on kerosene as a way of providing electricity for, say, powering their mobile phones or lanterns,” he told us.

As Bransfield-Garth says, this is due to ‘off-grid’ energy production in many countries with limited infrastructure where power is increasingly generated on a local level with fossil fuels.

And, as well as the environmental cost, Bransfield-Garth says the human cost is also high. He claims there are in the region of “two million deaths per year” related to kerosene used to supply electricty for basic needs.

With countries such as India dealing with large deficits between energy demand and production, it is a problem. Solar technology doesn’t currently offering an answer. Let’s guess – Bransfield-Garth thinks he does.

Yes, with the advances in printed plastic cells using organic photovoltaics, Bransfield-Garth believes the technology will be vital in offering a cheap and accessible way to provide safer energy.

Plastic photovoltaic cells are around half the cost of silicon equivalent, he says, with just one kilogram of photovoltaic materials needed to cover a Wembley Stadium-sized football pitch.

“The technology is also cheaper to implement, with no inverters and so on, meaning that the total cost is going to be a lot lower,” he says.

“Also, in terms of energy used to produce the panels, it is a lot lower, as normally it takes a long time to repay the cost of energy used to produce the cell.

“With printed plastics this is done a lot quicker.”

This is compounded, he says, by the fact that materials, such as indium, used in the production of current solar panels are limited, and can be tied to the market prices of display panels where the metal is also used.

There’s also a need in emerging markets for a more robust product, with the production method of printed plastics offering some benefits: “Printed plastic cells can be thought of as a laminated product, printed on a roll to roll manufacturing process, and so is a lot less brittle compared with traditional panels which can shatter like glass.”

Despite the benefits we’re told the technology has, it appears it will be some time before it’s ready for implementation. The technology is entering field trials and is not currently able to reach the efficiency of traditional methods, reaching 9.2 percent efficiency in lab conditions.

However, it’s still evolving, and Bransfield-Garth is confident that the technology is improving: “The figure for efficiency is going up around one percent every year, and I don’t see efficiency as a big factor in emerging markets in comparison with the importance of robustness for example.”

The lifespan of the products is significantly less, with plastic solar cells lasting just five years compared to current cells lasting at least in the region of twenty before their efficiency declines.

Bransfield-Garth says that this too will improve and is not necessarily a problem in a mass consumer market, considering the low cost of the product.

While printed plastics may lose out in some areas for the time being, it seems that it could be suited to many applications.

“In the long term view it will takeover,” Bransfield-Garth reckons. “But at the moment it is about opening up a new mass market in the emerging countries and increasing the use of solar energy.

“Though silicon works well in some places, printed plastics are not heavy and brittle or difficult to manipulate.

“So there is a lot of potential as a PV technology.