Inkjet printing could change the face of solar energy industry

Jun 28, 2011
This scanning electron microscope, cross-sectional image shows the various compounds of a new chalcopyrite solar cell only a few microns thick, which can be created much less expensively with inkjet printing. (Image courtesy of Oregon State University)

Inkjet printers, a low-cost technology that in recent decades has revolutionized home and small office printing, may soon offer similar benefits for the future of solar energy.

Engineers at Oregon State University have discovered a way for the first time to create successful "CIGS" devices with inkjet printing, in work that reduces raw material waste by 90 percent and will significantly lower the cost of producing solar energy cells with some very promising compounds.

High performing, rapidly produced, ultra-low cost, thin film solar electronics should be possible, scientists said.

The findings have been published in Solar Energy Materials and Solar Cells, a professional journal, and a patent applied for on the discovery. Further research is needed to increase the efficiency of the cell, but the work could lead to a whole new generation of solar energy technology, researchers say.

"This is very promising and could be an important new technology to add to the solar energy field," said Chih-hung Chang, an OSU professor in the School of Chemical, Biological and Environmental Engineering. "Until now no one had been able to create working CIGS solar devices with inkjet technology."

Part of the advantage of this approach, Chang said, is a dramatic reduction in wasted material. Instead of depositing on a substrate with a more expensive deposition – wasting most of the material in the process – inkjet technology could be used to create precise patterning with very low waste.

"Some of the materials we want to work with for the most advanced solar cells, such as indium, are relatively expensive," Chang said. "If that's what you're using you can't really afford to waste it, and the inkjet approach almost eliminates the waste."

One of the most promising compounds and the focus of the current study is called chalcopyrite, or "CIGS" for the copper, indium, gallium and selenium elements of which it's composed. CIGS has extraordinary solar efficiency – a layer of chalcopyrite one or two microns thick has the ability to capture the energy from photons about as efficiently as a 50-micron-thick layer made with silicon.

In the new findings, researchers were able to create an ink that could print chalcopyrite onto substrates with an inkjet approach, with a power conversion efficiency of about 5 percent. The OSU researchers say that with continued research they should be able to achieve an efficiency of about 12 percent, which would make a commercially viable solar cell.

In related work, being done in collaboration with Greg Herman, an OSU associate professor of chemical engineering, the engineers are studying other compounds that might also be used with inkjet technology, and cost even less.

Some approaches to producing solar cells are time consuming, or require expensive vacuum systems or toxic chemicals. OSU experts are working to eliminate some of those roadblocks and create much less costly solar technology that is also more environmentally friendly. New jobs and industries in the Pacific Northwest could evolve from such initiatives, they say.

If costs can be reduced enough and other hurdles breached, it might even be possible to create solar cells that could be built directly into roofing materials, scientists say, opening a huge new potential for .

"In summary, a simple, fast, and direct-write, solution-based deposition process is developed for the fabrication of high quality CIGS ," the researchers wrote in their conclusion. "Safe, cheap, and air-stable inks can be prepared easily by controlling the composition of low-cost metal salt precursors at a molecular level."

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User comments : 12

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fmfbrestel
5 / 5 (1) Jun 28, 2011
Sweet. Kick it up to 12% and you will have companies lining up at your door to licence the technology.
CouchP
not rated yet Jun 28, 2011
What may immediately come to mind are large printers that print these on panels or even siding, but portable ones seem to be the penultimate step, printing on panels, billboards, siding, bus's and just about any flat to marginally non-flat surface.
that_guy
1.8 / 5 (5) Jun 28, 2011
Yeah, but while the process may seem inexpensive up front - Do you realize how much it will cost to replace the iridium inkjet cartridges on those things?

It will be cheaper just to replace the whole machine every few years (And get the included starter iridium tanks), rather than replace those expensive cartridges.

They should develope a laser printing method for the solar cells. It will be cheaper in the long run.
newsreader
5 / 5 (5) Jun 28, 2011

It's pretty amazing how versatile this "inkjet" technology is. Too bad HP didn't foresee all these different uses for it's printer.
InsaniD
1 / 5 (1) Jun 28, 2011
I agree, "Newsreader". Amazing the after market uses these old printers have been put to.
that_guy
5 / 5 (2) Jun 28, 2011
apparently you have no sense of humor insaniD. and no, they won't be using old inkjets. They are using an inkjet process. The hardware will probably be some kind of modified industrial inkjet printing process. Your home printer will have nothing to do with it.
Vendicar_Decarian
3.2 / 5 (6) Jun 28, 2011
Once again we have Government Research doing the heavy lifting, while Corporations sit on their hands grubbing their money waiting for a Government research handout.
arofibook
2.3 / 5 (4) Jun 29, 2011
How many times per week do we learn about some fantastic new innovation in solar technology? A hundred? How many times do we ever see a useable result? Never.... Stop reporting this shit. It's as likely as UFOs.
ShotmanMaslo
not rated yet Jun 29, 2011
Once again we have Government Research doing the heavy lifting, while Corporations sit on their hands grubbing their money waiting for a Government research handout.


Most of research is funded by private corporations. Source:

http://en.wikiped..._science

That said, funding of science is one of the best uses for taxpayers money there is, and I would be glad to pay more taxes if was directed to this end.
danlgarmstrong
not rated yet Jun 29, 2011
How many times per week do we learn about some fantastic new innovation in solar technology? A hundred? How many times do we ever see a useable result? Never.... Stop reporting this shit. It's as likely as UFOs.


I beg to differ...actually I'll let Ray Kurzweil do my talking for me. Here is what he has to say:
"Solar panels are coming down dramatically in cost per watt. And as a result of that, the total amount of solar energy is growing, not linearly, but exponentially. Its doubling every 2 years and has been for 20 years. And again, its a very smooth curve. Theres all these arguments, subsidies and political battles and companies going bankrupt, theyre raising billions of dollars, but behind all that chaos is this very smooth progression."

Shaffer
not rated yet Jun 29, 2011
I recall seeing this being developed years ago on a tv show...flexible and inexpensive solar cells being "printed" in 2007/2008.

I found this, too...dated 2008:
http://inhabitat....strated/

This one dated 2003:
http://www.nrel.g...3594.pdf

...so I guess the REAL news is the gained efficiency?

Matthumanpizza
not rated yet Jul 05, 2011
It seems as if everything can be done at the nano, pico, and femto scales.