A new manufacturing technique may allow for solar panels to be produced simply using nothing more than an ink-jet printer.
The new technique, developed by MIT researchers, is a much gentler technology than what’s being used to manufacture solar cells. That’s because the process involves using vapors instead of liquid to bring down the temperature during manufacturing to less than 120 degrees Celsius, which allows it to be used on more delicate materials like paper, cloth or plastic.
The idea behind the MIT team’s approach is that if researchers can perfect a process in which cells can be printed on common everyday materials like cloth and paper, you would suddenly open the technology up to all kinds of possibilities for household use. Cells can be painted on wallpaper or companies can produce solar-powered curtains to harness energy anywhere the sun might shine.
The cells, which are quite durable, can be scrunched up, made into a paper airplane or even folded a thousand times over and still deliver solid performance. And if you wanted to harness energy outdoors, the paper can be laminated to protect it from harsh weather conditions.
Versatile and affordable solar cells would be a major boon to the industry. High manufacturing costs is one of the reasons why solar power hasn’t hit the mainstream as some renewable energy advocated had hoped. For instance, the glass that supports the active photovoltaic material coupled with installation can cost twice as much as the cells themselves. In contrast, paper costs one-thousandth as much as glass for a given area, according to the researchers.
The drawback is that paper-printed solar cells have an efficiency of about 1 percent, though researchers believe this can be improved significantly with further fine-tuning of the materials. Still, researchers say the amount of energy is supplied is “good enough to power a small electric gizmo.”
“We have demonstrated quite thoroughly the robustness of this technology,” says Vladimir Bulović, a professor of electrical engineering. “We think we can fabricate scalable solar cells that can reach record-high watts-per-kilogram performance.”
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