A printer has been invented that not only prints solar cells, but can do so at incredibly low prices and produce solar material as easily and cheaply as a photograph. If it does succeed, these solar printers could revolutionize everything we know about energy production and push us into a new world where every surface could be a potential power generator.
The ultra thin printed material could cover the roofs of buildings, vehicles, houses, and even power stations in massive fields. The new technology is being developed by researchers working from MIT. And though it won’t change the world overnight like some energy related technologies claim, it does offer an interesting alternative to the energy crisis.
Conventional solar cells are extremely expensive to build, but have an even higher cost in their supporting materials. Solar panels themselves are expensive not only for the photovoltaic silicon cells, but also for the glass and metal used to hold the frame together. But unlike previous ventures into solar energy, the new photovoltaic cells developed by printing can be bent and even folded while losing very little of their actual power drawing capabilities. So rather than depending on solar technology that depends on complex systems that can easily have something go wrong, the new solar cells are printed as easily as one would print a piece of paper, although not on quite so small a printer. The cells still have to be generated in massive factories where the process is streamlined to ensure minimal loss of power. But then once that process gets going, they cost very little to build and can be protected using a number of simple materials.
But the current efficiency of the solar cells might be the first problem the new system runs into. In order to keep up with the current solar cells already in production, the new system will have to depend on a wider area of use. While solar cells currently have an efficiency of anywhere from 5 to the record breaking 28.2 percent, the printed solar cells have a solar efficiency of somewhere around 1-2 percent. This means that in order to power a calculator these cells would require an area equivalent to one half of a folded wallet in surface area. Still, if the system did get off the ground it could have far reaching effects for locations that depend heavily on low cost of transportation of solar cells and have a massive surface area filled with sunlight.
A house covered in the material would not necessarily have all of its power needs met with this material at its current incarnation, but given a few more years and a bit more efficiency in the solar cells themselves, the 1-2 volts could be raised to perhaps 5 or 6 volts and then we’d be looking at the very real option of solar power as a means of solving some major power problems globally – right off the presses.