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  • Cheaper Solar? Try Plastic
Feb 2009
ALBERTA, Canada, Feb. 27, 2009 – The development of inexpensive, mass-produced plastic solar panels is a goal for many of the world's scientists and engineers because of the high cost and shortage of the ultra-high purity silicon and other materials normally required.

The University of Alberta (UA) and the National Research Council's National Institute (NINT) for Nanotechnology have now engineered an approach that is leading to improved performance of these much sought after plastic solar cells (hybrid organic solar cells).

Unlike silicon solar cells, plastic solar cells are made up of layers of different materials, each with a specific function, called a sandwich structure.

Jillian Buriak, a professor of chemistry at UA, NINT principal investigator and member of the research team, uses a simple analogy to describe the approach:
“Consider a clubhouse sandwich, with many different layers. One layer absorbs the light, another helps to generate the electricity, and others help to draw the electricity out of the device,” she explains. “Normally, the layers don't stick well, and so the electricity ends up stuck and never gets out, leading to inefficient devices. We are working on the mayonnaise, the mustard, the butter and other 'special sauces' that bring the sandwich together, and make each of the layers work together. That makes a better sandwich, and makes a better solar cell, in our case.”

After two years of research, these UA and NINT scientists have, by only working on one part of the sandwich, seen improvements of about 30 percent in the efficiency of the working model.

“Our team is so incredibly cross-disciplinary, with people from engineering, physics and chemistry backgrounds all working towards this common goal of cheap manufacturable solar cells. This collaboration is extremely productive because of the great team with such diverse backgrounds, [although] there is still so much more for us to do, which is exciting," says Michael Brett, professor of electrical and computer engineering, NINT principal investigator and member of the research team.

This multidisciplinary approach, common at the National Institute for Nanotechnology, brings together the best of the NRC and the University of Alberta. The team estimates it will be five to seven years before plastic solar panels will be mass produced, but Buriak adds that when it happens solar energy will be available to everyone.

She says the next generation of solar technology belongs to plastic, adding, “Plastic solar cell material will be made cheaply and quickly and in massive quantities by ink jet-like printers.”

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The technology of generating and harnessing light and other forms of radiant energy whose quantum unit is the photon. The science includes light emission, transmission, deflection, amplification and detection by optical components and instruments, lasers and other light sources, fiber optics, electro-optical instrumentation, related hardware and electronics, and sophisticated systems. The range of applications of photonics extends from energy generation to detection to communications and...
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