MIT Prints Thin Film Solar Cells on Paper

MIT thin film solar cell on paper
Photo: Martin LaMonica (CNET)

Thin film solar just became paper-printable: researchers at MIT have found a way to coat paper with thin film solar cells with a technique similar to standard inkjet printing processes. The development could revolutionize how solar panels are manufactured and installed, with potential avenues opening up to print solar cells on metal foil or plastic.
Using carbon-based dyes and with an efficiency of only 1.5 to 2 percent, the paper-thin cells are not terribly efficient yet - even compared other higher-efficiency thin film-type solar cells, the best of which so far can convert up to almost 20% of sunlight into electricity. But compared to conventional crystalline, silicon-based photovoltaics, thin film solar has been tested to be more efficient under less-than-ideal conditions (overcast skies, fog, etc) and the possible advantages in having lightweight, cheaper and easy-to-install solar panels made from commonly-found materials more than make up for it.

"If you could use a staple gun to install a solar panel, there could be a lot of value," says Vladimir Bulovic, director of the Eni-MIT Solar Frontiers Research Center.

Bulovic estimates that if 0.3 percent of the U.S. were covered with photovoltaics with 10 percent efficiency, solar power could produce three times the country's needs, including a shift to electric vehicles.

That's pretty neat to imagine, but the paper-printed solar cell could still be at least a decade away from making it to the commercial market.

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