Melbourne researchers are printing plastic solar panel prototypes on the same presses used to print Australia' s polymer banknotes.
Researcher Gerry Wilson, from the Australian Government's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, said the new plastic solar panels could start appearing on windows, shade cloths and roofs across Australia within five years.
The panels are being developed by CSIRO, Australia's national science agency; Melbourne-based Monash University; the University of Melbourne; and Melbourne-based Securency International Pty. Ltd. The project is supported by the Victorian Government though an energy technology research grant.
Securency owns the polymer note technology and printing presses.
Wilson said the idea grew from light-emitting plastics, also known as organic light-emitting diodes, used in cellphones and flat television screens. He said the technology is reversed to create low-toxicity light-absorbing plastic electronics.
The project could drive down solar-energy costs. Our research aims to discover new polymers that give improved solar performance and develop processes for mass manufacturing them, Wilson said.
The plastic solar panels are multilayer devices containing layers of polymer substrates and electrodes. Polyester or polyimide is used within the panels to provide mechanical stability and durability. A semiconducting polymer is used in the panel's active layer to absorb sunlight. Wilson said various plastics are being trialed as candidates for the active layer.
He said silicon solar panels, which had dominated the market for decades, are now being challenged by thin-film solar panels or other organic options, such as dye-sensitized panels and polymer or bulk heterojunction panels.
Panels are currently produced through a process in which layers are spun-coated onto a glass substrate. But, using the polymer banknote printing technology, Wilson said, options are endless.
With more-efficient production, smart plastics could be used in products like TV screens, flexible display screens and window film coatings that act as solar panels during the day and diffuse lighting at night.
We are very familiar with plastics being insulators, however the realization they can be made conducting and semi-conducting allows them to become highly functional materials, Wilson said.
Australia launched biaxially oriented polypropylene polymer banknotes in 1988, and the technology has since been sold to about 30 countries. The notes are manufactured and marketed by Securency International Pty. Ltd., a joint venture between the Reserve Bank of Australia and U.K.-based polymer film manufacturer Innovia Films Ltd. The company currently is on the market.