Solar breakthrough

A breakthrough in solar research by a team of scientists from New MexicoStateUniversityand WakeForestUniversitycould lead to the development of efficient flexible solar cells within the next five years.


While traditional solar panels are made of silicon, which is expensive, brittle and shatters like glass, organic solar cells being developed by the NMSU/ Wake Forest team are made of plastic that is relatively inexpensive, flexible, can be wrapped around structures or even applied like paint, said physicist Seamus Curran, head of the nanotechnology laboratory at NMSU.


The relatively low energy efficiency levels produced by organic solar cells so far however have been a drawback. To be effective producers of energy, they must be able to convert 10% of the energy in sunlight to electricity. Typical silicon panels are about 12% energy conversion efficient.


But that level of energy conversion has been difficult to reach by researchers developing organic solar technology, with many of them hitting only about 3 to 4%.


But the NMSU/Wake Forest team has now achieved a solar energy efficiency level of 5.2% using a mix of polymer and carbon buckyballs.


Conventional thinking has been that organic solar cells would not hit the market for at least a decade. But the group claims that its research could now mean that it may be only four or five years before plastic solar cells are a reality for consumers.


“Our expectation is to get beyond 10% efficiency in the next five years,” Curran said