Paper-Thin Solar Cells Show Promising Early Results

26/10/2010 02:25

You might own a printer that could put this blog on a piece of paper, but you probably don't own a printer that can print out solar cells to generate solar power from the sun. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology do, and early results indicate you may soon start seeing these paper thin solar cells on everything from window blinds to your laptop.

This development is the latest in a spate of good news about solar power, a type of renewable energy. Just last week, the White House announced plans to install solar panels on the roof of the building. And while wind power has become more popular than solar power in the United States, researchers at Washington State University have just decided to combine them.

At a news conference this week, MIT researchers showed off the prototypes of their paper thin solar cells by using them to power a small LED display.

Karen Gleason is the MIT chemical engineering professor whose lab has spearheaded the work. Members of her team developed a layer-by-layer manufacturing process to create the paper-thin solar cells.

Each cell has five layers of solid material that has been deposited onto a paper substrate. Each of those five layers serves a different action. For example, one layer contains the active material that releases an electron when it's struck by light and another layer contains the circuit that carries the current.

As you can imagine, this technology still has some wrinkles to work out before it's ready for the public. But Gleason told CNET News the technology could be made commercially viable soon.

"It'd be a matter of economics and investment on the time frame for large-scale commercialization," she says. "If everything went great, I think five years is not unreasonable."

But there's a lot of work left for the researchers. The problem with these early prototypes is they have a very low light-to-electricity conversion rate. Commercial solar panels with silicon solar cells have an efficiency greater than 15 percent, while these early paper-thin solar cells only achieved a one percent conversion rate. Researchers hope to bump that up to four percent on paper, or even higher on other materials.


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