Imagine a future in which you can carry your power supply with you: On your laptop, your cell phone and even on your clothes. Even better: The outsides of buildings are able to harness power as well and so are your windows and rooftops.

This is what scientists around the world are trying to achieve in their efforts to create organic printable solar cells. Just a moment, you may say. This might work in Florida or Southern France but certainly not cloudy Northern European countries. You could be wrong.

British scientists at the National Physical Laboratory are developing special solar panels that function best when it is gray and gloomy outside. These 3D printed solar cells are able to work more efficiently on typical overcast Northern European days than when exposed directly to the sunlight. The solar cells can be printed onto fabrics and electronic devices but because they are not as efficient as conventional solar cells, it may take another five years before they are ready for use in commercial applications.

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This is only one of many projects around the world to make printed solar cells more efficient and cost-effective. Several months ago, an international consortium of scientist and industry leaders has achieved a major breakthrough in the production of thin-film solar cells. The researchers from the Victorian Organic Solar Cell Consortium (VICOSC) developed a printer that can print ten meters of flexible solar cells in a minute and increased the dimensions of their printed solar cells from fingernail-size to DIN A3 within just a few months. The cells can be printed onto a variety of materials, including steel and other metals.

“In the short term, we are looking for applications in consumer devices and small integrated electronics”, says Dr. Scott Watkins who is Stream Leader, Organic Photovoltaics (OPVs) at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and a member of VICOSC.
“In the long term, we see these materials being able to be coated onto buildings, to windows and onto roofs to provide power in a wide variety of locations and circumstances”, he adds in a video about the new printing facility in Melbourne, Australia.

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Unlike traditional silicon solar cells, printed solar cells use organic semi-conducting polymers, which can be dissolved in a solvent and used like an ink, thus allowing solar cells to be printed. The researchers at VICOSC used commercially available off-the-shelf printers that can also be used for every-day-applications such as label- or T-shirt-printing.

In a related effort, Harvard’s Clean Energy Project published a database of 20.000 organic compounds suitable for printing solar cells that is continuously expanded and updated. This effort aims at supporting scientists in their efforts to develop models for cost-effective and more efficient printable solar cells.

The Victorian Organic Solar Cell Consortium is a research collaboration between CSIRO, The University of Melbourne, Monash University, BlueScope Steel, Robert Bosch SEA, Innovia Films and Innovia Security. It is supported by the Victorian State Government and the Australian Government through the Australian Renewable Energy Agency.