Imagine wearing a t-shirt that charges your phone? With solar cell paper, that may become a possibility. A team of researchers from MIT (with support the from Eni-MIT Alliance Solar Frontiers Program and the National Science Foundation) has recently developed a process that prints solar cells onto a fabric or paper substrate.

The video demonstrates that the cell is flexible and can be folded without loss of conductivity. It truly looks like something out of a sci-fi movie and is nothing short of impressive.

The full research article  on the technology was published on June 8th, 2011 in Advanced Materials. To gain access to the entire report, a fee is required. However, the abstract provides some information about the inner workings of solar cell paper:

“Organic photovoltaic circuits are monolithically fabricated directly on a variety of common paper substrates using oxidative chemical vapor deposition to vapor print conformal conductive polymer electrodes. The paper photovoltaic arrays produce >50 V, power common electronic displays in ambient indoor lighting, and can be tortuously flexed and folded without loss of function.”

The Solar Cell Printing Process

The MIT news article, titled “While You’re Up, Print Me a Solar Cell” describes the deceptively simple solar cell printing process in more depth.

This process requires five layers of material to be deposited on the same sheet. A paper mask creates the pattern. Believe it or not, the team was able to successfully imprint the “ink” on ordinary untreated paper including copy paper, tracing paper, tissue paper and newsprint. They even successfully printed a cell on a sheet of PET plastic (to demonstrate exceptional durability).

Most photovoltaic manufacturing processes require liquids or higher temperatures. This printing process is unique because it occurs in a relatively cold (less than 120°C) vacuum chamber and uses vapors to create the cells.

Costs of Printed Solar Cells

While the solar cell printing process sounds complicated, it’s actually a relatively inexpensive process that is commonly used on the commercial scale to produce things like silver potato chip bag liners.

In addition, there is a significant cost benefit because of the materials used in printable solar cells. For conventional solar cells, substrate material and installation costs are typically greater than the cost of the active films of the cells themselves. Since these printed solar cells use paper as a substrate instead of glass, cost savings could be material.

Efficiency of Printed Solar Cells

Currently, the cells have an efficiency of only one percent, but the research team believes this would increase significantly with fine-tuning of the materials. While the team did not divulge its efficiency goal for the cells, the current power generation is enough to power something small.

Functions of Printed Solar Cells

While these printed solar cells could function as an “on-chip” for other paper electronics, the most exciting potential for these cells could be integration with items like window shades, awnings, wall coverings, apparel and documents. As we mentioned earlier, who wouldn’t want a t-shirt that charges your phone? For outdoor uses, the researchers demonstrated that the paper could be coated with standard lamination materials to protect it from the elements.

Considering that the price of solar continues to decrease–$0.74 per watt–is it possible for solar cell technology to become ubiquitous?


imageJill Bellenger, ASLA, LEED GA, CPH

Jill Bellenger, ASLA, LEED GA, CPH is a founding principal at 3 Design Consulting LLC. She is a Landscape Designer and Certified Professional Horticulturist, with a focus on the principles of the Sustainable Sites Initiative and LEED. She is an experienced Green Business advocate, with core expertise including conservation landscaping, LEED, graphic design, professional development programming and green building practices. She holds a Bachelor of Landscape Architecture degree from SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, NY and is currently enrolled in the Sustainable MBA program at Green Mountain College. Jill is also an instructor at the Monteverde Institute Sustainable Futures semester in Costa Rica.

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