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Technology | April 2011

Power (of) Plastic

A US-based company is working on a photo-reactive polymer material (Power Plastic) invented by co-founder and Nobel Prize winner, Dr Alan Heeger, which is less expensive to manufacture than traditional solar, more malleable and may probably herald the end of PV panels.

A solar energy company, Konarka Technologies, (named after Konark Sun Temple in India), was founded in 2001 by a team of scientists led by the late Dr Sukant Tripathy, an internationally-known materials scientist and professor at University of Massachusetts, Lowell, Dr Alan Heeger, a 2000 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry and Howard Berke, Executive Chairman, Konarka.

The team discovered a way to process photovoltaic materials at relatively low temperatures. This discovery enabled—for the first time—the use of low-cost polymers as the top and bottom surfaces of the photovoltaic cell. It also enabled the photovoltaic cells to be manufactured at high speed using coating and printing technologies.

The company’s plastic-based photovoltaic cells are efficient across a much broader spectrum of light than traditional solar cells, allowing them to be used effectively indoors and outdoors. The company is also researching infrared light activated photovoltaics which would enable night-time power generation. In 2008, the company introduced Power Plastic to the commercial market. In 2009, the company opened a large-scale manufacturing plant in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and introduced seven standard panels suitable for microelectronics, portable power and remote power applications.

Advantages

The company builds photovoltaic products using next generation nano materials that are coated on rolls of plastic (Power Plastic). The nano materials absorb sunlight and indoor light and convert them into electrical energy. These products can be easily integrated as the power generation component for a variety of applications and can be produced and used virtually anywhere.

The manufacturing process enables production to scale easily and results in significantly reduced costs over previous generations of solar cells.

Unlike conventional solar cells, which are packaged in modules made of glass and aluminium and are rigid and heavy, these solar cells are lightweight and flexible, making them attractive for portable applications.

What’s more, they can be designed in a range of colours. One of the first products to use these cells were solar bags which could recharge portable electronics. Because the solar cells can be made transparent, a version of solar cells are being manufactured that can be laminated to windows to generate electricity and serve as a window tinting. However, the technology has several challenges they are working to overcome. The solar cells last a few years, unlike the decades that conventional solar cells last and the solar cells are relatively inefficient. Conventional solar cells can easily convert 15 per cent of the energy in sunlight into electricity; while these cells only convert up to 8.3 per cent, which happens to be the highest that the National Renewable Energy Laboratory has recorded for organic photovoltaic cells.

At the heart of this technology is a photo-reactive polymer material invented by the company’s team of scientists, including co-founder and Nobel Prize winner, Dr Alan Heeger. This proprietary material can be printed or coated inexpensively onto flexible substrates using roll-to-roll manufacturing, similar to newspapers being printed on rolls of paper. The resulting Power Plastic can then be manufactured into a range of end-use products.

Also, the roll-to-roll process simplifies manufacturing scale-up and has significantly lower capital and labour costs than previous generations of solar cells. The process is non-toxic and environmentally friendly, and because it’s conducted at low temperatures, it is less energy intensive than first or second generation technologies. Another significant advantage is that it can be produced using existing coating and printing equipment, and thus does not require construction of a new facility. The simplicity and modularity of the process means that, finally, solar material can be manufactured and used virtually anywhere in the world where there is demand for power.

The company’s New Bedford manufacturing facility, which became fully operational in 2009, is ramping up to produce Power Plastic in variable widths up to 60” wide at the rate of 30 m/minute for an annual production capacity of 1 GW. It is only solutions such as these that can make grid parity achievable.

Advantages of Power Plastic over other OPV technologies

  • Power Plastic’s tunable cell chemistry can absorb specific wavelengths of light, as well as a broad spectrum.
  • It converts light to energy whether that light is from the sun or a light bulb, enabling it to work both indoors and outdoors.
  • It is the only thin-film PV technology that uses all recycleable materials.
  • It is light-weight and flexible and can be manufactured up to 60” wide in virtually any length, and the panels can be combined for greater power output.

The author is Konarka Technologies co-founder and Nobel Prize winner, Dr Alan Heeger. Views are personal.

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