Our thin, flexible solar cells could offer an affordable solution to meeting the needs of increasing energy demands around the world.

The challenge

Harnessing the sun to meet rising energy needs

[Music plays and CSIRO logo and text appears: CSIRO Developing the flexible electronics of the future]

[Images flash through of employees in protective clothing working in the Flexible Electronics Laboratories, the employees’ faces, operating a touch screen and looking at a light emitting panel]

[Image changes to show Fiona Scholes]

Fiona Scholes: Hi, I’m Fiona. 

[Image changes to show two employees working at a machine and then the image shows one of the employees walking over to sit at a small table in front of a control board]

I work here at CSIRO in Industrial Innovation and one of the things that we work in is Flexible Electronics. 

[Camera zooms in on the employee writing in a notebook, operating the control panel and the employee’s face]

So these are the Flexible Electronics Laboratories and here we do research into OLEDs, that’s Organic Light Emitting Diodes and also printed solar cells and one is really the opposite of the other. 

[Image changes to show light moving up and down a panel suspended from the ceiling]

So with OLEDs we put in electricity and get out light but with Solar Cells obviously we put in light and we get out electricity. 

[Image changes to show Fiona Scholes talking to the camera and text appears: Fiona Scholes, Group leader, Industrial Innovation]

[Image changes to show a diagram of solar panels working on a house roof]

Printed solar cells are really different to conventional rooftop silicon solar cells. 

[Image changes to show a large bank of solar panels and then the image changes to show an employee operating a control panel and an employee printing solar cells]

Unlike the big black sort of rectangles that you see on the top of rooftops across Australia and the world printed solar cells are flexible.  They’re lightweight. 

[The camera zooms in on the printer printing the solar cells on to plastic]

They’re printed onto plastic in more or less the same way that we would print, say, a plastic banknote. 

[Camera zooms out to show the printing process of printing rolls of solar cells and then the camera zooms out to show a male employee operating the machine]

Because printed solar cells are flexible you can roll them up and this means that you can use them for mobile applications. 

[Camera zooms in on rolls of solar cells moving through the printer and then the image changes to show Fiona Scholes talking to the camera]

So for example camping on remote locations, perhaps in window furnishings like roller blinds and because they’re semitransparent you can use them on windows. 

[Camera zooms in on Fiona Scholes face as she is talking to the camera]

So if you put up a normal solar panel in a window it’s not a window anymore it’s a wall but if you put a printed solar cell in a window you’ve got a tinted window that also generates electricity.

[Image changes to show Regine Chantler holding a roll of printed solar cells and talking to the camera and text appears: Regine Chantler, Lab Manager]

Regine Chantler: And because it’s also lightweight that means that they can be used for portable applications. 

[Camera zooms in to show Regine Chantler displaying a printed solar cell embedded in a backpack]

So, for example, they can be embedded into a backpack.  They could be embedded into mobile phones and things like that. 

[Image changes to show strips of printed solar cell and then the camera zooms out to show Regine Chantler displaying a portable system of vertical printed solar cell drapes and then the camera zooms in on Regine Chantler]

This sort of line uses the technology by taking advantage of the lightweight, the transparency and the flexibility of flexible solar and this is one way of taking advantage of the window space and still harvesting energy from the sun.

[Image changes to show Fiona Scholes talking to the camera and then images flash through of hands moving dials, an employee working at a machine and a very small solar cell being held in tweezers]

Fiona Schales: The CSIRO team have built up our capacity to print solar cells by working in collaboration with our friends at Monash University and University of Melbourne. 

[Image changes to show employees checking on machines and then the image changes to show a lid being shut down on the machine]

Now when it comes to efficiency, they aren’t yet as efficient as conventional silicon solar panels but we are getting there. 

[Image changes to show Fiona Scholes talking to the camera and then the image changes to show a solar cell being printed]

There’s new solar inks that have been developed just in the last couple of years that are proving to be almost as good as conventional silicon. 

[Image changes to show the solar cell rolls being printed]

So far we’ve proved that on very tiny printed solar cells and our task now is to actually scale that technology up. 

[Image changes to show Fiona Scholes talking to the camera and then the image changes to show a ceiling fan shaped panel suspended from the ceiling, lighting up and then the camera zooms in on the panel]

So an OLED is basically a certain type of LED light but instead of being based on silicon and other inorganic materials it’s based on organic inks. 

[Image changes to show Fiona Scholes talking to the camera]

So very similar to the organic solar cells in fact and what they enable you to create is this wall of light because you print the OLED ink across the surface and it’s that whole surface that produces light and illuminates in this really beautiful diffuse glow. 

[Image changes to show a female controlling a screen from a touch pad]

We’re starting to see O.L.E.D.s or OLEDs all over the place. 

[The camera zooms in on a hand operating a touch screen]

They started showing up on the back of our cameras as little screens and on our phones. 

[Image changes to show a computer screen display and then the image changes to show Fiona Scholes talking to the camera]

They’re also fantastic for lighting, biomedical applications and of course the all elusive roll up display. 

[Image changes to show a view looking upwards at a circle of skyscrapers to the sun in the sky above]

Our appetite for energy is continuing to rise and of course we need to find ways to use less energy. 

[Images move through of the rolls of solar cells moving through the printer, a male employee, the rolls of solar cell moving through the printer, a solar cell being printed and Fiona Schole talking to the camera]

We’d love to create a future where we see printed solar cells all over the place, lining the walls of our buildings, the rooftops of our houses, the windows of our skyscrapers, the rooftops of our cars.  Solar energy everywhere for everyone.

[Music plays and CSIRO logo and text appears on screen: CSIRO, Big ideas start here, www.csiro.au]

Developing the flexible electronics of the future

Solar energy is a huge source of clean, sustainable power – a fraction of the sun's energy could power the world.

With global energy demands continuing to rise, a range of low-cost solar technologies will be crucial to meeting the energy needs of both the developed and developing world.

Our response

Printable solar cells that are flexible and lightweight

We're developing new materials and processes to enable the production of thin, flexible solar cells based on printable ‘solar inks’. These inks are deposited onto flexible plastic films using a range of processes including spray coating, reverse gravure, slot-die coating and screen printing.

We’re developing new printable solar cells that are flexible, light weight and are so thin that they can cover most surfaces.

We've also developed capabilities in both organic photovoltaics (OPV) and dye-sensitised solar cells (DSSC). These technologies differ in a number of ways from traditional, silicon-based solar cells, offering:

  • greater flexibility – being light weight and flexible, solar panels can be integrated into windows, window furnishings, rooftops and even consumer packaging
  • affordability – lower cost and light weight solar can provide for the energy needs for remote outback locations and developing communities.

This work has been carried out by the Victorian Organic Solar Cell (VICOSC) Consortium, a research collaboration between CSIRO, Monash University, the University of Melbourne, BlueScope Steel, Innovia Films, Innovia Security and Robert Bosch SEA. It has been supported by funding from the Victorian State Government and the Australian Government through the Australian Renewable Energy Agency.

The results

Pilot-scale production is now ready for expansion

By developing new organic materials and solar cell device architectures, we have achieved power conversion efficiencies of around 9 per cent on small-scale devices.

Our pilot-scale, roll-to-roll printing lines have successfully fabricated 10 × 10 centimetre flexible solar modules, and we have recently begun printing even larger solar modules up to A3 size.

Our rapidly expanding efforts on hybrid organic-inorganic solar inks are also resulting in significant advances in the performance of our large-area printed solar cells.

We are keen to focus our technology on specific applications, and can now produce pilot-scale quantities for incorporation into a wide range of prototypes.

The low barriers to entry mean this technology can provide new opportunities for Australian manufacturing, opening up new markets and new jobs.

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