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Clean Power This is an image of the polymer blend morphology without (left) and with (right) nanowires.
Image Credit: Imperial College/S. Wood & J. Bailey

Published on October 29th, 2013 | by James Ayre

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Low-Priced Plastic Solar Cells Coming Along



Originally published on Solar Love.

Cost-efficient plastic solar cells are now one step closer to the market thanks to new research from Imperial College London — a new means of exerting control over the arrangement of polymer molecules within a thin layer of a plastic solar cell has been developed, allowing, essentially, the creation of ‘nanowires’ within the material.

One of the primary obstacles to the creation of cheep, efficient plastic solar cells has been the difficulty in controlling the arrangement of polymer molecules within the thin layer of the printed polymer semiconducting material — a difficulty that now appears to have been overcome. The researchers at Imperial have developed “an advanced structural probe technique to determine the molecular packing of two different polymers when they are mixed together.”

This is an image of the polymer blend morphology without (left) and with (right) nanowires. Image Credit: Imperial College/S. Wood & J. Bailey

This is an image of the polymer blend morphology without (left) and with (right) nanowires. Image Credit: Imperial College/S. Wood & J. Bailey


“By manipulating how the molecules of the two different polymers pack together, the researchers have created ordered pathways — or ‘nanowires’ — along which electrical charges can more easily travel. This enables the solar cell to produce more electrical current.”

“Our work highlights the importance of the precise arrangement of polymer molecules in a polymer solar cell for it to work efficiently,” states Ji-Seon Kim, lead researcher and also a senior lecturer in experimental solid-state physics at Imperial College London. Kim also mentions that she expects polymer solar cells to hit the commercial market sometime within the next 5 to 10 years.

The obvious advantage of such polymer solar cells is that they have the potential to be significantly cheaper to produce than conventional solar cells — which typically require expensive, highly purified silicon. The cost savings that could result from replacing that silicon with polymers could be enormous.

The researchers explain: “Organic semiconducting materials, and especially polymers, can be dissolved to make an ink and then simply ‘printed’ in a very thin layer, some 100 billionths of a meter thick, over a large area.”

“Covering a large area in plastic is much cheaper than covering it in silicon, and as a result the cost per Watt of electricity-generating capacity has the potential to be much lower,” states Kim.

The new research was just published in The Journal of Chemical Physics.

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About the Author

James Ayre's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy. You can follow his work on Google+.



  • TCFlood

    I strongly suspect the main problem with polymers in sunlight is photooxygenation. There are built-in C-H bonds in these polymers for which radical oxidation intermediates will be highly stabilized by resonance. In addition the polypyrrol groups are likely to be efficient photocatalysts for singlet dioxygen formation. The only way these organic-based devices can survive for any length of time is to completely prevent any diffusion of oxygen into the organic matrix containing the polymers.

  • https://plus.google.com/u/0/116871216264349123945/posts Felix Hoenikker

    Ya thats actually a real concern, degradation of these type cells in the past has been very rapid. So even though upfront cost was “comparable” lifetime cost wasnt even close.

    • Bob_Wallace

      Wonder how UV resistance chemistry is these days? I’ve got PVC pipe that’s been fully exposed to sunlight for ~20 issues with no apparent degrading.

      • eject

        That is done by filling the polymer with TiO2 or CaCO3 or just Carbon. This works by reflecting UV (the former two) or absorbing and thereby converting into IR (or heat) carbon. For obvious reasons that can’t be done with PV panels. However you can put them behind glass. That filters a lot of UV and will increase the lifespan. I think those cells will be good for remote controlls and all sort of other gadgets which run on batteries. They don’t need a lot of power bit create a lot of rubbish (which needed a lot of energy to make and to recycle). Indoor lighting is enough for a remote control, a keyboard or you kitch clock. Alarms and what not.

      • Ivor O’Connor

        I have two water wells. Both have PVC pipe exposed to the sun. I have not done a great job preventing stress at the top and both have broken in the last 10 years. Possibly in the last 5 years.

        On the other end I have not bothered to figure out what the best UV resistant pipe is. I just go to the hardware store and ask. They probably give me crap. (Everything I know about they always get wrong.)

        • eject

          If it is an actual pipe (rigid) try to get a black PP one. If it is the soft type (hose style) PVC will never hold long exposed to nature, the plasticizer will be gone after a couple of years and the part will fail. Worst case scenario you have rigid PVC connected to plasticized PVC. The plasticizer will leak from one part into the other and the joint will fail in no time.

          I am only believing in these cell for actual power production when the first products come out. But I can see some future for device integrated PV with them. We need to the the Silicon production close to the energy price like it is the case for steel. At the moment Silicon prices are more or less arbitrary. The spot market price doesn’t mean a lot, most of the Si is provided via long term commitments, it isn’t a commodity yet.

          • Ivor O’Connor

            Thanks. The next time I buy pipe I will do some research. Usually though my adrenalin is coursing through my body and I can’t think straight.

          • jeffhre

            My understanding was that cpvc is to be used for domestic water pipes, and pvc should only be used for plants

          • Bob_Wallace

            Specifically, CPVC for hot water lines. CPV is commonly used for cold water runs.

          • jeffhre

            Ohhh, thanks Bob.

          • Bob_Wallace

            At least that’s what my local building department told me.

            PVC is commonly used for water mains. Here’s a site that seems to have a good explaination about why not to use PVC for hot water.
            http://knitowl.blogspot.com/2010/07/why-should-you-not-use-pvc-on-your-hot.html

        • Mike

          Be careful, PVC leeches some of the most harmful chemicals into your water and contaminates the soil nearby. Leaving it in the sun will only make this worse. I know it’s commonly used, but that should never be an excuse to continue using it. Just a head up in concern for your safety, spread the word.

    • Ivor O’Connor

      Yes. Their prices should take into account these risks.

  • Ivor O’Connor

    I’ve never seen any plastic last long in the sun. Patio furniture does not. Neither do hoses for water. When they eventually release this product they will have to overcome this argument somehow…

    • James Van Damme

      My homemade solar hot water heater is glazed with coated polycarbonate honeycomb. I’ll let you know when it starts to go bad. It’s been 25 years or so..

      • Ivor O’Connor

        Nice. Thanks.

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