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Australian scientists print out world’s largest organic solar cells

Australian scientists print out world’s largest organic solar cells
Dr Scott Watkins holding a sheet of flexible solar cells. (Photo courtesy of C.S.I.R.O.)

An organic solar cell the size of a large sheet of paper has been successfully “printed out” in Australia.

Ten times the size of previous organic solar cells, this latest solar cell is the product of a collaboration of Australian scientists known as the Victorian Organic Solar Cell Consortium or VICOSC.

The consortium comprised of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, The University of Melbourne, Monash University and industry partners, successfully developed a new printer that prints an organic solar cell the size of an A3 sheet of paper.

The ability to print this sort of cell at such a large scale opens up many possibilities for pilot applications, said C.S.I.R.O. materials scientist Dr. Scott Watkins.

“We can set them into advertising signage, powering lights and other interactive elements. We can even embed them into laptop cases to provide backup power for the machine inside,” he added.

Using semiconducting inks, the scientists print the cells straight onto paper-thin flexible plastic or steel. The printer works at the speed of up to ten meters per minute, allowing for the production of one cell every two seconds.

The printer, which costs around 200,000 Australia dollars ($197,038), is the result of three years of study in which the VICOSC team has produced cells the size of a fingernail to cells 10 centimetres square. With the new printer, they can now produce cells that are 30cm wide.

According to Dr. David Jones, VICOSC project coordinator and University of Melbourne researcher, one of the key advantages of the group’s approach is their use of existing techniques, making it a very accessible technology.

“We're using the same techniques that you would use if you were screen printing an image on to a t-shirt,” he noted.

As the scientists continue to improve their equipment, they are also looking at other possibilities, including the potential to laminate them within windows that line skyscrapers.

“By printing directly to materials like steel, we'll also be able to embed cells onto roofing materials,” said Dr. Jones.

The VICOSC is also developing solar cells that can be embedded on walls, windows and steel roof sheeting to harness energy from the sun (see related story), which could make buildings self sufficient and more energy efficient.

These cells, which have a capacity of 10 to 50 watts of power per square meter, could provide a viable alternative to traditional silicon photovoltaic cells or even work with them to improve efficiency.

“The different types of cells capture light from different parts of the solar spectrum. So rather than being competing technologies, they are actually very complementary,” said Dr. Watkins.

As part of the collaboration, a complementary screen printing line is being installed at nearby Monash University. Combined, these will make the Clayton Manufacturing and Materials Precinct one of the largest organic solar cell printing facilities in the world.

The Victorian Organic Solar Cell Consortium is a research partnership between the academe and industry based in Victoria, including BlueScope Steel, Robert Bosch SEA, Innovia Films and Innovia Security. It is backed by the Victorian State Government and the Australian Government through the Australian Renewable Energy Agency. – C. Dominguez

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