The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has recently presented the result of one of its projects about paper-thin solar cells, they have come up with a layer-by-layer manufacturing process that produces ultra-thin solar power cells, MIT showed prototypes of paper solar cells able to generate enough current to light a small LED display.
According to MIT a commercial thin solar paper rolls could be available in as little as five years. At the moment more than 80% of solar cells today are made of silicon.
Paper thin solar power cells explained
To make a cell, five layers of solid material are deposited onto a paper substrate. Each layer serves a different function, such as the active material that releases an electron when struck by light and the circuit that carries the current, a MIT researcher explained.
Thin paper solar power cells are nothing else than the solar panel without the panel, just a thin coating like a layer of paint that takes light and converts it into electricity with this in mind it is easy to imagine a whole building whose windows are made of solar power cells sucking up power from the Sun.
Paper solar power cells advantadges
Paper thin power cells can significantly reduce Solar energy costs, thin film solar power cells could be used as window covers in big buildings and power plants, with paper thin solar power cells rural areas will have no need to lay down power lines or import fuel to power their electricity.
The sides of buildings, tinted windows, cell phones, notebook computers, cars and even clothing could all use this new ultra-thin paper solar panels printed on the product eliminating many of the highly energy and chemical intensive processes that are typical in conventional photovoltaic manufacture.
The fact that these paper thin solar power cells are flexible meaning that they are easier to install and will be very useful when trying to install photovoltaic energy panels on curved surfaces like a car body or a laptop case, MIT has succeed proving the folding ability of their solar power cells but their power producing capabilities have a long way to go.
Paper thin solar power cells processing uses organic materials and polymers, which are abundant and thus not expensive, it is a a matter large-scale commercialization for the economics to make it a viable alternative to present silicon photovoltaic power cells.
The downside of these new ultra thin solar power cells it is their efficiency level which is of of just one percent as opposed to the average fifteen per cent efficiency that normal solar power cells yield.
Silicon solar power cells advantadges
The scientist are divided in respect to silicon based solar power cells future.
One side argues that since silicon can not absorb visible light too well, thick, high quality layers are needed to make a solar power cell to produce a decent amount of energy and that makes the currently most used photovoltaic panels expensive.
Silicon, the core material of a traditional photovoltaic solar power panel, is an expensive commodity and up to seventy per cent of the silicon is wasted while manufacturing a silicon solar power cell, besides silicon power panels are heavy, dangerous, expensive to ship and difficult to mount, it normally has to be installed by an specialist solar power engineer on a steel frame on top of a roof.
Based upon this, one group argues that the prospects for really cheap silicon solar cells are dim.
On the other hand other scientists say that there is more than enough silicon available since this is the second most common element in the Earth’s crust and that innovation and research will eventually drive down the production costs and increase silicon technology efficiency.
Traditional solar wafer-based cells are still cheaper and produce a higher yield than film and paper based solar power cells.
The costs of photovoltaic solar power
This powerful technology keeps improving with the time and it can help to reach the $1/watt solar power costs sweet spot that is roughly what carbon powered electricity costs, solar energy power costs can vary from $3 to $6 per Watt, five times what carbon based power costs but a big improvement from the $100 per watt solar energy used to cost in the late seventies.
In order to reach the ambitious US Department of Energy cost target of less than $1/Watt the panels themselves will need to cost around $0.50/Watt.
The current state of photovoltaic solar power makes it very hard to make it profitable without government subsides, it takes many years to recover the huge big initial investment, photovoltaic solar power just does not pay for itself in a timely way, it can take dozens of years for the return of investment of a photovoltaic solar installation to be recovered and this is a big hold up given the uncertainty of the future most people and business usually face, they rather pay a small amount for grid power than taking a lifelong investment compromise in solar energy, even if in the long term works out fossil energy works out more expensive.
If the electrical companies could store their power efficiently less plants would be needed, this is exactly what the main problem is with photovoltaic solar panels, on top of the solar power cells you need to add the costs of batteries, inverters, cabling and installation costs.
In an external solar power installation, paper thin solar power cells could affect one piece of the puzzle, the cost of the photovoltaic panel, but all of the other costs still remain, that is why paper thin cells main use should be for interiors and installations inside tight and confined spaces where setting up a set of photovoltaic panels is not viable.
The main cost of a photovoltaic solution still remains the solar panels themselves, the other technology is relatively simple in comparison and not expected to make the big technological advances that can be made in solar power efficiency and production.
The price for solar components will diminish at the same time as demand for them increases, ironically this is exactly the opposite of what happens to carbon, oil and gas energy, which price increases the higher is the demand for them.
The future of photovoltaic energy
The amount of electricity that photovoltaic panels contribute today to the grid is nothing but a gesture token, the price per Watt and the huge initial investment needed, driven by installation costs, together with low efficiency in comparison to fossil based energy, are a big force stopping the utopia of a World whose electricity supply is entirely based on solar power cells.
Photovoltaic solar power cells have their uses in countries and locations of difficult access with no power grid, that is when they start to become really cost effective, but at the moment, until power efficiency is improved photovoltaic energy can not compete in price with fossil produced energy unless it is with Government subsidies.
Paper thin solar power cells open a whole new World for solar powered electronics, but I would sceptical of its success for home and business installations with high energy needs due to its poor efficiency.