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By  Rebecca Willetts 14 March 2024 4 min read

Key points

  • Our researchers have led an international team to a clean energy efficiency breakthrough with fully roll-to-roll printed solar cells.
  • Where traditional silicon solar panels are rigid and heavy, our printed solar cells are highly flexible and portable, and can be used in previously unimaginable ways.
  • This result is the culmination of more than a decade's research and development at CSIRO, and we are now actively seeking industry partners to further develop and commercialise the technology.

Dr Doojin Vak, Nature Communications paper lead author and our Principal Research Scientist, holding CSIRO-produced flexible solar cells.

Flexible printed solar cells

Printed solar cells are highly efficient, flexible, and decreasing in cost. Unlike traditional silicon panels, which are rigid and heavy, solar cells could be deployed in previously impossible ways to generate energy from the sun. This includes being adhered to buildings, vehicles, clothing and wearables.

However, scaling up production while maintaining efficiency has long been a hurdle for printed solar cell technology. Many researchers have only achieved efficiency levels of one or two per cent with a full printed flexible solar panel.

In a remarkable feat, our scientists have developed a new method for producing fully roll-to-roll printed, flexible solar cells that deliver unprecedented levels of efficiency. Increased efficiency means more power is generated from the same amount of sunlight.

Our new method has been able to produce small lab-scale solar cells that are near the efficiency of typical solar panels. But to bring them into the real world, they need to be bigger.

That's why the real game changer is our achievement of 11 per cent efficiency for 50 cm2 large-scale solar panels comprising interconnected solar cells.

These record results were achieved in a project we led in collaboration with researchers from the University of Cambridge, Monash University, the University of Sydney and the University of New South Wales. This research was published in the leading journal Nature Communications.

Energy efficiency through perovskite and printing presses

Solar panels, the workhorses of the renewable energy world, have traditionally relied on silicon as their light-absorbing material. While this technology has served us well, the pursuit of innovation never ceases.  

Enter perovskite – a remarkable class of emerging solar cell materials that can be formulated into inks and printed on widely available industrial printers. Perovskite may offer a cheaper and more energy-efficient alternative to manufacturing traditional silicon-based solar cells. It is lightweight and flexible, which makes it portable for powering devices on the go, and incredibly versatile in its potential applications. 

The cells are printed using a roll-to-roll technique similar to newspaper printing, which allows for continuous, large-scale production. While roll-to-roll production of perovskite solar cells isn’t new, existing technology has faced limitations in efficiency and scalability. Our approach has achieved significant breakthroughs that address these challenges. The dramatic increase in efficiency has paved the way for commercially-viable perovskite solar cell manufacture at scale. 

Dr Mei Gao, Team Leader of our Printable Photovoltaics team, with our fully roll-to-roll printed solar cells.

Solar cell screening accelerates innovation

At the core of our success was a crucial element: the use of automated fabricated and screening systems to rapidly unlock the full potential of this technology. Our research team utilised a groundbreaking system capable of producing and testing more than 10,000 solar cells in a day. This feat is far beyond the reach of manual processes.  

Using this innovative method, we could quickly pinpoint the ideal settings for various parameters. This led to a substantial increase in efficiency outcomes.

Printed solar environmental and economic impacts

Our flexible printed solar cells hold immense potential for driving sustainable energy solutions and significant economic benefits. Widespread adoption of this technology could empower industry to achieve net zero emissions through a clean, sustainable energy generation alternative. It would create new economic and employment opportunities across sectors in printed solar cell manufacture, installation and maintenance. 

Its shorter energy payback time and projected low costs make it an economical and environmentally attractive renewable energy solution. 

We were also able to alleviate the need to use expensive metals like gold in production by using specialised carbon inks. This lowers manufacturing costs substantially. 

More than a decade’s research and development, followed by strong international collaboration, has culminated in this world-first efficiency outcome for our printed flexible solar team

Beyond the lab to industry

Our new method of generating printed flexible solar offers game-changing opportunities across major industry sectors in Australia.

Defence and emergency management

Troops and disaster relief teams could rapidly deploy our lightweight, portable solar panels to generate power in remote locations.

Construction, agriculture and mining

Our greener, cheaper, efficient alternative cuts out solar panel transport and installation for remote operations, and the need for traditional generators. 

Space exploration

We have already successfully launched these solar cells into space as part of a world-first test, which proves their ability to power the next generation of space endeavours.

Urban infrastructure

Buildings, parking garages, and even sound barriers along highways could be transformed into power-generating structures and integrate seamlessly with the urban landscape.

Dr Anthony Chesman is Group Leader of the Renewable Energy Systems Group and is overseeing a suite of renewable energy solutions at CSIRO

Our opportunity for industry

We are eager to collaborate with partners who share our vision of bringing flexible solar power to industries and applications for positive impact. 

Whether your mission is to enhance national security, rapidly deploy emergency power, construct off-grid infrastructure, or push the boundaries of space exploration – we want to hear from you. 

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