The Next Step In Solar?

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IBM recently released its third annual “Next Five in Five” list of innovations that have the potential to change the way people work, live, and play over the next five years. The company’s choice of innovations that make the list is based on market and societal trends, as well as emerging technologies from IBM’s Labs around the world.

One of the innovations to make the November 2008 list was “energy saving solar technology will be built into asphalt, paint and windows”. As IBM states:

Ever wonder how much energy could be created by having solar technology embedded in our sidewalks, driveways, siding, paint, rooftops, and windows? In the next five years, solar energy will be an affordable option for you and your neighbors. Until now, the materials and the process of producing solar cells to convert into solar energy have been too costly for widespread adoption. But now this is changing with the creation of “thin-film” solar cells, a new type of cost-efficient solar cell that can be 100 times thinner than silicon-wafer cells and produced at a lower cost. These new thin-film solar cells can be “printed” and arranged on a flexible backing, suitable for not only the tops, but also the sides of buildings, tinted windows, cell phones, notebook computers, cars, and even clothing.

In January 2008, TFM’s “Facility Technologist”, Tom Condon, penned a column that discussed this thin-film solar cell technology. In that article, he wrote:

One invention has the potential to transform various components of a facility itself into power producing elements. Dr. Alan Heeger at the University of California Santa Barbara has made a discovery that has the potential to revolutionize power generating solar panels.

Traditional solar cells use a photovoltaic technology that has not changed significantly in the last 50 years. Photovoltaic solar panels are relatively expensive and heavy, and they need to be pointed directly at the sun in order to be effective.

Heeger’s invention has introduced a new way to generate power from sunlight: solar ink printed on thin film. This breed of photovoltaic material produces electricity when exposed to sunlight. The thin film, which is only a few thousandths of an inch thick, generates electricity far more efficiently than a traditional cell that weighs hundreds of times more.

Heeger formed Konarka Technologies in Lowell, MA, which is manufacturing printed ribbons using solar ink called Power Plastic®. These flexible ribbons are incredibly easy to work with and can be used in a wide variety of applications.

Konarka's Power Plastic

Konarka's Power Plastic

Konarka’s technology also solves one of the main impediments to the use of solar power—cost. The company has already reduced the cost of manufacturing a solar cell from around $2.40 per watt for traditional solar cells to less than $1 per watt for its Power Plastic cells. The company asserts that through mass production the cost will be reduced to around 10¢ per watt. With traditional cells providing an eight to 10 year payback, a 10¢ per watt cost can make return on investment (ROI) payback a big incentive.

Another exciting part of this new technology is its flexibility. Because this Power Plastic is in the form of ink, there are limitless applications. For example, because the ink is translucent, it could be applied to windows like a tint film. This would mean that the glass exterior of a skyscraper could become a huge solar cell, generating electricity while blocking the sun’s glare. Or, solar ink could be applied like a paint to exterior wall surfaces. Roofing materials could also have solar ink printed onto them. The ink could turn the whole building into a giant electrical generator.

The impact of this technology can extend beyond facilities. Because solar ink is so lightweight and flexible, it could be used to make mobile phones with built-in solar cells to recharge the phone, or the ink could be used to create clothing that generates power.

It will be interesting to see how thin-film solar cell technology is adopted by facilities over the next few years.

The other four innovations on IBM’s list this year had to do with “a crystal ball for your health,” two way communications with the Web, digital shopping assistants, and the eradication of “forgetting.” Read more on IBM’s site…

(Photo courtesy of Konarka Technologies)

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4 Responses
  1. John M. Pisciotta says:

    Various companies are now working on this. XSNX was doing window tint solar cells a number of years ago. MIT has now revived a 70s era solar energy window tint.

  2. blue7053 says:

    I’m a little concerned about some of these inks as I understand they use ‘rare earths’ as a component. We need, ultimately’ multi terawatts of power and this technique is limited. Even if this isn’t the ‘last’ answer, it’s great for now and it’s pointed the right way: at the Sun.

  3. Chargers says:

    I think it was vital that the cost element of solar power was reduced, as has been here. Cost has been one of the key excuses used by people as to why they’re not pursuing solar as an alternative energy source. If we can remove cost out of the equation we can increase the amount of people switching to solar power.

  4. haydin banks says:

    when can I put these on my roof

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