Global Observer

In Dresden, organic solar looks to go mainstream

In Dresden, organic solar looks to go mainstream

Posting in Energy

BERLIN - As silicon prices drop, critics say organic solar technology doesn't stand a chance. But could organic photovoltaics from Germany - the world's solar capital - be poised to succeed?

BERLIN - When Dr. Martin Pfeiffer began working with organic solar cells as a student at the Technical University (TU) Dresden some 15 years ago, he says efforts to increase cell efficiency then were disheartening at best.

But eventually he began experimenting with controlled doping - a method normally applied to semiconductors, though less common in organic solar technology - to improve results. After years of trial and error, Pfeiffer realized he had stumbled upon something that would have far-reaching consequences for a number of organic technologies, including OLEDs.

Pfeiffer is now Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of Heliatek, an organic photovoltaics (PV) start-up and TU Dresden-spin-off that just set a new world record of 9.8% for organic solar cell efficiency, as confirmed by the Fraunhofer ISE CalLab. Its competitors in the US, including Konarka, are further ahead in production, Pfeiffer admits, but no other organic PV in the world has higher independently-confirmed efficiency rates.

Such success could mean big things for the large-scale marketability of organic PV, which has traditionally proven more cost-effective than the high-temperature production processes required for silicon cells - but was significantly less energy efficient.

Heliatek now says it plans to complete the "lab to fab" transition within the next few weeks.

We're just now setting up a production line, and we expect to be able to place the first products in the market at the beginning of next year," Pfeiffer said.

Dr. Martin Pfeiffer, CTO Heliatek

"We will produce on 30cm-wide sheets of PEP in a roll-to-roll process so the length of modules can be adapted to customer wishes. This is the very first production line of its type."

He says the plan is to move to 1-meter-wide sheets thereafter, with the goal of producing products which produce 50 megawatts of power per year.

Skeptics wonder if Heliatek and its contemporaries will be quick enough to penetrate a market dominated by traditional silicon solar technology. Lux Research contends that manufacturing prices for silicon products will continue to fall so quickly that organic PVs will never get their foot in the door before scaling issues are solved, reported optics.org.

But Heliatek has attracted investment support from big players such as energy giant RWE and chemical company BASF in recent months. Both companies are also based in Germany - no stranger to mass solar energy consumption markets, as SmartPlanet reported earlier this week.

Despite doubtful analysis, Pfeiffer says he is optimistic about both the applicability and scalability of organic solar modules.

"They're thin, light-weight and flexible," Pfeiffer said, "which means they could be used to generate energy for everything from portable electronic devices like laptops and mobile phones to cars, homes and industrial buildings."

"And finally it's also about aesthetics," he added. "Our cells are beautiful colors like dark blue or green: it's just nice to have one."

Photos: Heliatek

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Shannon Smith

Correspondent (Berlin)

Shannon N. Smith has written for WNYC's The Takeaway and TheLocal.de. She holds a degree from the University of Texas at Austin. She is based in Berlin, Germany. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure