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The cost and efficiency of solar panels continue to decline as companies and policymakers hope that abundant energy from the sun could help replace power generated by burning fossil fuels. As such, solar panels are becoming increasingly common not just in large solar energy installations, but on commercial and residential rooftops as well.
Researchers at the University of Michigan, however, hope that newly developed technology could one-day harvest energy from building exteriors beyond just the roof.
Current silicon-based solar panels are decidedly not see-through, but so-called organic solar cells, made from a plastic material, can be largely transparent — making for a tantalizing prospect for energy-harvesting windows. They haven’t become practical on a large scale, however, due to low efficiency, short lifespans, and other engineering challenges.
Michigan electrical engineering professor Stephen Forrest’s lab was able to create organic cells that could last up to 30 years at efficiencies of 10% — less than its silicon-based counterparts, but enough to potentially be a viable solar window.
Researchers subsequently turned their attention to a different problem: manufacturing at scale. Organic panels currently rely on lasers to print the cell patterns, but those lasers can easily damage the light absorbers.
The Michigan team took a different approach: depositing thin layers of patterned plastic, organic, and metal, then peeling off the plastic to achieve the needed resolution for micron-scale electrical connections.
The result was a small, semi-transparent panel with a greenish tint, but in principle, it could scale up to two meters by two meters — more than enough for conventional windows.
Forrest hopes to get the system to 10%-15% efficiency at 50% transparency within two years. The system could effectively remove most of the risk from the production process so manufacturers will be more willing to invest in it.
The university applied for a patent on the technology and is on the lookout for partners to commercialize it. Engineers noted it could have many other applications as well. Forrest’s group is already applying it to OLED lighting.
Image Credit: TIR
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