Powerful Polymers: Pushing Plastic Solar Cells  

Posted by Big Gav in , ,

Technology Review has an article on plastic solar cells with "near-perfect internal efficiency" - Pushing Plastic Solar Cells.

Plastic solar cells are lightweight, flexible, and, most important, cheap to make. But so far, these devices have been too inefficient to compete with silicon solar cells for most applications. Now researchers from a few institutions claim to have made polymer solar cells with record-breaking efficiencies. These cells still aren't good enough to compete with silicon, but polymer efficiencies have been increasing at a rate of about 1 percent a year. If they can keep this up, say researchers, plastic solar cells will be competing with silicon within a few years.

This week, in the online edition of Nature Photonics, researchers reported on polymer solar cells that convert about 6.1 percent of the energy in sunlight into electricity--inching a bit closer to the 10 percent that they say will be needed to gain a significant foothold in the market. (Conventional silicon cells are about 15 percent efficient.) The new efficiency numbers "show that we're in the game," says Alan Heeger, a professor of physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who led the research. Heeger shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2000 for his role in the development of the first conducting polymers, and he's cofounder and chief scientist at Konarka, a plastic solar cell company headquartered in Lowell, MA.

The California researchers' results compare very favorably with previous published descriptions of polymer solar cells, whose efficiency has hovered around 5 percent. Konarka says that the company's cells, which use different materials than the cells made in Heeger's university lab, have recently been rated at about 6.4 percent. And a competitor in San Mateo, CA, called Solarmer Energy has made plastic cells with similar efficiencies, according to an affiliated researcher.

Plastic solar cells, no matter how well designed, have intrinsic limits dictated by the polymers that make up their active layer. The polymers made so far can only absorb relatively narrow bands of light. It's possible to boost their power-conversion efficiency by stacking films of polymers designed to pick up different bands of light; Heeger's group has, in fact, had some success with this in the past. But this approach has a major disadvantage. "Layering is self-defeating because you increase the fabrication costs," says Luping Yu, a professor of organic chemistry at the University of Chicago, who is also working on solar cells.


Hi Gav,

Did you see the report done by catalyst last week on flexible solar cells? I might write about it soon.


Hi David,

No - I didn't see it - thanks for the heads up.


Anonymous   says 3:46 PM

Forgive me but are we not moving deckchairs around again? Plastic comes from Oil, as in finite resource, running out fast. I'm not a scientist I'm a CPA but when I look at the numbers for solar all I see is a negative EROEI. Solar seems like an extravagant waste of precious resources which in the medium term will achieve very little. As I write this the NSW Govt in Australia has approved $20 Billion to upgrade road and rail infrastructure over the next 20 years. Obviously no one has told them about Peak Oil followed by no oil!

Ummm - the idea that solar doesn't have a significant positive EROI is nonsense - where on earth do you get this from.

As for plastic, ever heard of bioplastic ?

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