UK scientists say they have developed a new technique for making polymer solar panels that could usher in a cheap renewable energy future.
The results of a study from the Universities of Sheffield and Cambridge, published in the Journal Advanced Energy Materials, found that by depositing layers of flexible photovoltaic material like “cling film” over a large plastic surfaces, it is possible to manufacture efficient solar panels more cheaply than conventional silicon solar modules.
“Our results give important insights into how ultra-cheap solar energy panels for domestic and industrial use can be manufactured on a large scale,” said Dr Andrew Parnell of the University of Sheffield. “These films could then be used to make cost-effective, light and easily transportable . . . solar panels.”
According to the study, the process works like varnishing a tabletop. When the film – up to 1000 times thinner than a human hair – is spread out onto a surface, semiconducting molecules contained within the mixture separate to the top and bottom of the layer, maximising the solar efficiency of the panel.
The researchers used the ISIS Neutron Source at the UK’s Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC) to peer into the molecular structure of solar cells without destroying them in order to uncover the precise layering characteristics of the material and how different processing steps affect overall polymer solar cell performance.
The results of the study paves the way for future research into supply of polymer solar panels using a fraction of the materials needed in conventional solar cell manufacture – essential, according to Professor Richard Jones of the University of Sheffield, if the world is to transition to a renewable energy future.
“Over the next fifty years society is going to need to supply the growing energy demands of the world’s population without using fossil fuels, and the only renewable energy source that can do this is the sun. Cheap and efficient polymer solar cells that can cover huge areas could help move us into a new age of renewable energy.”