Printing Australia’s largest flexible solar cells

Scientists have produced the largest flexible, plastic solar cells in Australia – 10 times the size of what they were previously able to – thanks to a new solar cell printer that has been installed at CSIRO.

The printer has allowed researchers from the Victorian Organic Solar Cell Consortium to print organic photovoltaic cells the size of an A3 sheet of paper.

According to materials scientist Dr Scott Watkins, printing cells on such a large scale opens up a huge range of possibilities for pilot applications.

“There are so many things we can do with cells this size,” he says. “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.”

Using semiconducting inks, the researchers print the cells straight onto paper-thin flexible plastic or steel. With the ability to print at speeds of up to ten metres per minute, this means they can produce one cell every two seconds.

You can laminate them on to skyscraper windows. Why, you could even make a jacket out of them. We’re talking about lightweight, flexible solar cells, now being produced larger than ever before on a new printer in our labs in Melbourne. The printed, organic solar cells use mainly carbon-based polymers (as opposed to silicon) to generate electricity. The polymers can be dissolved up to make an ink that can be put down using simple coating techniques, including screen-printing. In the last three years the team, which includes the University of Melbourne and Monash University, has moved from making solar cells the size of a fingernail to making panels the size of an A3 piece of paper. The printed cells are not yet a direct competitor with existing technologies but the team is looking to short-term, low power applications such as indoor advertising or charging of mobile devices, to prove the technology works and encourage further development. Dr Scott Watkins, Organic Photovoltaics

As the researchers continue to scale up their equipment, the possibilities will become even greater for this technology. Eventually they hope to see solar cells being laminated to the windows that line skyscrapers and embedded onto roofing materials.