ATMOS develops low-cost spray-on solar panels

A UK company developing spray-on solar panels says its technology could be up to 10 times cheaper to produce than traditional photovoltaic cells.

The devices, invented by Cheshire-based company ATMOS, are made from a mixture of metal oxide coatings deposited onto common building materials such as concrete.

Although such a system is unlikely to be as efficient at producing electricity as conventional silicon devices, it can be used to create much larger and more robust solar diodes.

ATMOS has licensed the technology to new company Teckhne, part of Universal Master Products, which will work with King’s College London, UCL and Manchester Metropolitan University to develop it into a commercial product.

‘The devices can be made by a very simple, low-cost method without clean-room conditions and the only by-products are water vapour and carbon dioxide,’ Jeffery Boardman, inventor and ATMOS managing director, told The Engineer.

Teckhne expects that the technology will more likely be used to create large-scale solar farms, rather than for micro-generation by individuals.

‘You can get more efficient solar panels but they’re so expensive no one can afford to buy them,’ said Guy Lamstaes, chief executive officer of Teckhne. ‘If space isn’t a problem but cost is, then this technology is perfect.’

The panels could theoretically by created by spraying the metal oxides onto existing roof tiles. But because the power supply could easily be disrupted if the tiles came loose, the team instead plans to design individual panels of up to 2m2 in size.

To make one of the devices, transition metal oxides are deposited onto the substrate base materials by a process called flame spraying. The minerals are projected through an acetylene-powered flame gun, becoming molten and attaching to the base.

The semi-conducting coating then works in a similar way to silicon-based solar panels, which use radiation from the sun to excite electrons in the material and so generate electricity.

‘One of the biggest challenges in the R&D [research and development] stage will be to improve the quality of the metal oxide deposits by maximising their density,’ said Boardman.

Around £500,000 is needed to develop the technology, which could take as little as 12 months once the money is found. A small Northwest Regional Development Agency grant was used to take the technology to the point of proof of concept.

The team is looking for more R&D grants and venture capital in the UK but is also discussing further investment with companies in the US and South America.

If a large manufacturing deal is agreed, Teckhne expects that it could need investment of as much as $20m (£13m). ‘But we may decide we don’t need to go that big,’ said Lamstaes.