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By Emma Malcolm 18 May 2021 3 min read

Victoria's 2020 ‘second-wave’ COVID-19 lockdown meant our top researchers could not use their labs.

Determined to make flexible solar panels a reality, the team overcame adversity with stunning innovation to advance the field - all from the comfort of home.

A light bulb moment for flexible solar panels

©  Nick Pitsas

For Dr Doojin Vak, time away from the lab led to an epiphany that could transform the solar industry.

Doojin and the Printed Photovoltaics Team use industrial printers to make super thin and flexible solar panels that can be applied to pretty much anything, including awnings, tents and backpacks.

While the team has been working hard to improve the energy efficiency of their flexible solar panels to rival traditional silicon cells, Doojin used his time during lockdown to prevent COVID-19 impacting on the progress of his research.

While the researchers are away, the robots slay

Prior to the lockdown brainwave, creating research samples of flexible solar cells was a time-consuming process.

Our experienced researchers could only make and test up to 20 solar cells in a day and needed to be there every step of the way.

To facilitate work from home, Doojin designed and built a research robot that can be controlled remotely or autonomously so his work could continue in the lab.

Doojin's new automated research system was able to fabricate and test a whopping 12,000 cells in a 24-hour period, without a researcher in sight. No biggie – that's just 600 times more than the team's usual output.

This means the team has already achieved new-record energy efficiency for the technology. They're now keen to partner with Australian businesses to kickstart flexible solar manufacturing in Australia.

Cassette tapes make a comeback

Introducing the concept of a cassette tape into the research process made this advance possible. Basically, one robot 'records' different solar cells at each position in a roll of tape. Then, the other robot 'plays' the tape exactly like a cassette player.

So, while some of us remember playing and recording music with a dual cassette deck in the 80s, predictably, Doojin's process looks much more modern.

Fabricating so many cells created a new challenge for the team: how do they process the volume of data produced? By using artificial intelligence, or more specifically machine learning, of course.

In another 'first', Doojin is working with colleagues at Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology (UNIST) in South Korea to use machine learning to analyse and predict manufacturing parameters of printed solar cells.

And they've demonstrated record breaking efficiency for organic solar cells.

The combination of autonomous testing and machine learning is further accelerating the development of the technology. Amazingly, Doojin did all of this working from home during the pandemic.

A new day dawns for flexible solar panels

Our printable, flexible solar panels are ready to shine. They're thin, lightweight, and approaching the same energy efficiency as their bulky rooftop counterparts.

We use organic or perovskite solar cells, which are made from a mix of organic and inorganic materials rather than traditional silicon solar cells. We employ our highly-specialised ink to print the solar cells onto rolls of polymer film. This process is significantly cheaper than producing solid silicon panels.

The team ensures developments can be rapidly translated to commercial production processes by focusing on printing techniques that are relevant to industry. This in turn will allow for the product to reach the marketplace faster.

Flexible solar will change the way we create and consume energy. It’s now time for Australian industry to leverage our scientific excellence and drive the use of flexible solar globally. Find out more about our licensing and investment opportunities.

We’re supporting work led by the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources (DISER) to implement the Modern Manufacturing Strategy.

Recycling and clean energy is one of the six priority areas in this whole-of-government strategy. The aim is to help Australian manufacturing scale-up and become more competitive and resilient. This in turn will create jobs now and for future generations.

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