Solar cells can now be printed, thanks to new technology

Photo by Asia Chang via Unsplash

There are two major hurdles preventing the widespread adoption of solar power: the difficulty of producing solar panels, and the efficiency with which they convert sunlight into power. The first, however, might have seen a recent breakthrough that might make solar power much more viable in the near future.

The University of Toronto has announced a new way to produce solar cells: by printing them with an inkjet printer. It’s a little more complicated than just printing them out—it requires some very special “ink”—but the short version is that they’ve developed a system to print out solar cells that can be used on a variety of materials in order to make solar panels that work.

Called perovskite solar cells, they are “capable of turning nearly any surface into a power generator.” This means that anything from “smartphone covers that provide charging capabilities to solar-activated tinted windows that offset building energy use” could produce power. Because they require much lower temperatures to make, they can actually be used on things like smartphone covers or glass.

“Perovskite solar cells can enable us to use techniques already established in the printing industry to produce solar cells at very low cost,” said study senior author Professor Ted Sargent.

These cells do lag a bit in energy efficiency, but not that much compared to other solar cells. At 22.1 percent efficiency, they’re only slightly behind the next silicon solar cells, which score 26.3 percent efficiency. The perovskite cells also retained 90 percent of their efficiency even after 500 hours of use, much better than an older production technique for the same kinds of cells.

Researchers think they’re well on their way to solving that problem, though.

“With our low-temperature process, we could coat our perovskite cells directly on top of silicon without damaging the underlying material,” said study co-author Dr. Hairen Tan. “If a hybrid perovskite-silicon cell can push the efficiency up to 30 percent or higher, it could make solar power a much better economic proposition.”