Commercially viable organic solar cells expected to be available in two years

Posted by Rick C. Hodgin

Indianapolis (IN) – An international team of scientists including Professor Lee Kwang-hee at the Gwangju Institute of Science and Technology, and Professor/Nobel Laureate Alan Heeger at University of California Santa Barbara, has developed an organic solar cell that achieves 6.5% efficiency. While this figure is notably less than today's non-organic solutions (which reach efficiencies in excess of 40%), the teams' research has finally blasted past the 5% barrier for this type of solar cells. They've overcome a major obstacle and it is believed this first announcement is just the foundation of the technology’s real potential.

Previous organic solar cell experiments have been hindered by scientific brick walls. The reinforced concrete ceiling was struck hard at 4.8% efficiency. This limitation made organic solar cell products all but useless for commercial application. And while it might outwardly seem that a mere 1.7% increase is hardly enough to get excited about, the excitement comes not from the amount of increase alone, but rather from breaking through the 5% barrier. There is also greater potential in future application using the very research of this team. Kwang-hee has already seen unconfirmed efficiencies of 7% in the lab, and believes the officially verified 6.5% seen today will be upped to 15% in just two years.

These advancements were made by a specific processing technology involving the orientation and layering of materials. The new products are designed to convert more of the EM spectrum into energy, including both infrared and ultraviolet. This additional use of the EM spectrum accounts for the largest single component increase in the new model. The new materials can be manufactured by using a type of ink-jet printer-like device which sprays the organic materials onto a flexible substrate.

Organic solar panels are inexpensive and can be mass produced in all kinds of variable shapes. If the efficiencies can be raised, they could power many more types of electronic devices in the future. Kwang-hee even sees of a future of wearable neckties and other clothing which provide power for portable devices as we move around.

Current high-end solar cell solutions using traditional (non-organic) manufacturing processes are achieving 41% efficiency in mass producible products. Efficiencies as high as 63% using those processes are anticipated by the year 2020. But, no surprise here, those traditional solutions are much more expensive to produce. This holds true even when factoring in the additional surface area required for the same output power (due to the lower efficiencies).

The solar cell industry expects to top a market volume of $10 billion dollars by 2010. Scientific breakthroughs like these hold the potential to change the shape of that entire industry.