It’s no secret that solar panels are set to change the way the world harnesses energy – especially when considering that next-generation homes could be powered by batteries that are charged by self-harnessed energy – and just like any other piece of modern technology, scientists and researchers have been actively looking at ways to make the solar panel manufacturing process more optimized using an additive manufacturing process.
Among others, a team of 50 Australian scientists from various fields have been working over the past few years to develop paper-thin, organic printable solar panels as part of the Victorian Organic Solar Cell Consortium. According to the researchers, the printable panels are capable of powering entire skyscrapers and they’re hoping to see commercial market production for the printed panels for use starting in low-power applications in the very near future.
According to the project’s website, the technology has the potential to “dramatically reduce the dependence on more traditional sources of electricity in developed countries such as Australia, and also provide a cheap, easily deployable source of electric power for remote regions beyond the reach of the grid in developing countries.”
Additionally, unlike traditional electricity-producing solar panels, the printed cells offer the potential to allow printing onto actual housing materials including glass and roofing – a factor that could dramatically open up design opportunities. In addition to the opportunities for printing the cells on to larger structures, the scientists also looked at ways of applying the technology onto smaller objects such as iPads.
“iPad covers, laptop bags, skins of iPhone [will no longer be] just for casing electronics, but to collect some energy as well and power those electronics,” said Fiona Scholes, a senior research scientist at Australia’s national science agency CSIRO.
The researchers have managed to reduce each of the solar panels to approximately the size of a coin and have been able to achieve this manufacturing marvel thanks to 3D printers that have been modified to print with solar ink.
“It’s very cheap,” said Scholes. “The way in which it looks and works is quite different to conventional silicon rooftop solar.”
The consortium – which is comprised of members of CSIRO, Melbourne and Monash universities – has even gone so far as to explore how to transport the technology to some of the world’s most remote areas that don’t even use electricity.
“We print them onto plastic in more or less the same way we print our plastic banknotes,” Scholes also said. “Connecting our solar panels is as simple as connecting a battery.”
As for what’s next for the team, researchers hope that with government support they could be available to the public in just a few years.
“The long range goal is – it’s a little bit utopian – but you have every surface of any building, ever car, generate energy,” Monash Dean of Engineering Frieder Seible told AAP.
Federal Opposition Leader Bill Shorten and Victorian MP Anna Burke toured the lab on Friday, spruiking Labor’s aspirational 50 per cent renewable energy by 2030 target.
“What we see here is there’s technology which will revolutionise manufacturing and our capacity to turn sunlight into electricity for Australian consumers and small businesses,” Mr Shorten said.
Professor Seible said the new cells could be publicly available in just a few years with government support.
Mass production of printable cells would create jobs locally, so long as production isn’t moved offshore as it was with silicone cells, he said.
Some silicon cells were invented in Australia but production occurs in China.
“We have to make sure with the printable solar cells that we don’t make the same mistake. Namely that we don’t just invent it here, but we also produce it here in the end,” he said.
Scholes said that the potential for the technology is endless – the challenge is to just make them more efficient.
“We would like to improve the efficiency of solar panels – we need to develop solar inks to generate more energy from sunlight,” explains Scholes.
“We are confident we can push the technology further in the years to come.”