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Scientists Spray Paint Solar Power

Thursday, February 14, 2013

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UK researchers have developed a method of spray coating for solar cells that could reduce the cost significantly, accelerating the technology's spread to developing countries.

The technology could potentially be used on building facades or the roofs of cars, according to researchers from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Physics and Astronomy and the University of Cambridge.

University of Sheffield

Solar cells made by using specially designed plastic semiconductors can be mass produced, the scientists say. Above shows an artist's impression of spray-coating glass with the polymer to create a solar cell.

Spray coating a photovoltaic active layer by an air-based process—similar to spraying regular paint from a can—is a cheap technique that can be mass produced, the University of Sheffield said in a release.

The team’s research, “Fabricating High Performance, Donor-Acceptor Copolymer Solar Cells by Spray-Coating in Air,” was published Feb. 5 in the journal Advanced Energy.

Photovoltaic Coating

“Spray coating is currently used to apply paint to cars and in graphic printing,” said Professor David Lidzey, University of Sheffield.

“We have shown that it can also be used to make solar cells using specially designed plastic semiconductors. We found that the performance of our spray-coated solar cells is the same as cells made with more traditional research methods, but which are impossible to scale in manufacturing.”

The photovoltaic coating consists of a "blend of carbazole and benzothiadiazole based donor–acceptor copolymers and the fullerene derivative PC70BM," according to the team’s description.

Alternative to High Cost, High Energy Options

Ultimately, the team says they are trying to reduce the amount of energy and money required in solar cell fabrication.

University of Sheffield / YouTube

The researchers' spray painting robot paints the glass surface in this video.

“This means that we need solar cell materials that have low-embodied energy, but we also need manufacturing processes that are efficient, reliable and consume less energy,” Lidzey said.

Most solar cells are manufactured using special energy-intensive tools and using materials like silicon that contain large amounts of embodied energy, the researchers said.

Plastic, by comparison, requires much less energy to produce. So by spray-coating a plastic layer in air, the team hopes to significantly reduce the overall energy used to make a solar cell, according to the researchers.

Surface, Efficiency Challenges

A challenge in the process has been that surfaces coated need to be “very smooth,” the team says.

“At present, devices are coated onto flat surfaces; however there is nothing to stop us coating curved surfaces that could be used in a number of applications,” according to the researchers.

Eivind K. Døvik / Flickr

Research into more efficient and cheaper ways to harvest the sun's energy is taking place worldwide.

Another downside to using the plastic as solar cell materials—needed for the spray technique—is that they are not currently as efficient at generating electricity as cells made from silicon. Most solar panels found in the UK are made from silicon and expected to last more than 25 years.

“It is unlikely that plastic cells will ever be this stable, but if the energy cost of plastic cells can be lowered enough, they will become more effective than silicon over their life cycle,” the group said.

Lidzey said that the energy-conversion efficiency and lifetime of plastic cells were also being studied by other research teams.

Glass Charged

In a separate, but related announcement, a UK solar power company with the ability to “print” colorful glass could generate electricity received a £2 million ($3.1 million) investment boost to help bring its technology to market.

Oxford Photovoltaics, a spin-off from the University of Oxford, said the dye-sensitized solar cells can be produced from inexpensive, abundant, nontoxic and non-corrosive materials and be scaled to any volume. The development is ideal for glazing panels and facades, according to the company.

“What we say here is rather than attach [solar] photovoltaics to the building, why not make the building the photovoltaics?” Kevin Arthur, the company's founder and CEO, told the Guardian.

“If you decide to build a building out of glass, then you've already decided to pay for the glass. If you add this, you're adding a very small extra cost. [The solar cell treatment] costs no more than 10% of the cost of the facade.”

Battery Paint

Scientists on this side of the pond are also active in solar cell research and technologies.

battery paint
Rice University / YouTube

Rice University researchers recently developed a paint-on lithium-ion battery that can be applied to virtually any surface.

For example, a group of scientists from Rice University in Houston, TX, recently developed a lithium-ion battery that can be sprayed onto any surface. The rechargeable battery can be created by spray-painting five layers that represent each component of a traditional battery on to the surface.

A building wall or façade covered in the battery paint could then be coated with solar cells that could be used to capture and store solar energy into useful electricity, the scientists explained.


Tagged categories: Air spray; Coatings Technology; Coatings technology; Photovoltaic coatings; Research; Solar; Solar energy; Spray Paint

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (2/14/2013, 8:26 AM)

Neat. What's the efficiency numbers and cost? Traditional crystalline silicon cells are regularly over 20% efficient. Currently commercialized Thin-film flexible cells like Nanosolar are now about 14% efficient and use MUCH less materials than crystalline.

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