UCSB physics professor and Nobel Laureate Alan Heeger produced a “bright” invention this past summer – the world’s most affordable and efficient organic solar panel.
The panel features tandem organic solar cells that convert sunlight into electricity at a projected five times less the cost of current silicon solar cells. In contrast to the traditional silicon solar panels, the new cells are made from conducting polymers or plastics that are printed onto a surface in a process similar to film production. Heeger developed the cells with a team of researchers at the UCSB Center for Polymers and Organic Solids.
Heeger said the new technology will help bring affordable energy to people around the world, most notably in developing nations where electricity is unavailable. He said the new cells will arrive to the consumer market within the next three years.
“The idea is to reduce the cost of solar energy and improve the lives of people who are without electricity,” Heeger said.
According to Heeger, the tandem cells gather a wider range of solar radiation through the layering of two different polymers. The layering makes it possible for the cells to gather more energy than previous organic solar cells, he said.
“The result is 6.5 percent efficiency,” Heeger said. “This is the highest level achieved for solar cells made from organic materials.”
The cells are connected by the material TiOx, a transparent titanium oxide, which increases cell efficiency. TiOx works as a stable foundation between the two layers, acting as a collecting layer for the first cell and the fabrication of the second cell, completing the tandem cell architecture.
Heeger said that despite concerns over the reliability of the new plastic paneling, news of recent tests show surprisingly long lifetimes of these solar cells.
“If the cells have half the lifetime of silicon cells, but the price is cut five times, we would have a more efficient product,” Heeger said. “We’re trying to reduce the cost and plan to solve the energy needs of the future.”
The physics professor said he intends to market the product through Konarka Technologies, a company he co-founded in 2000. Although these new solar cells will initially appear in high-end products such as camping and outdoor gear, Heeger said he would like to see the technology used to power homes around the globe.
“The goal is to eventually see these [solar cells] on rooftops.” Heeger said.
The new tandem cell technology stemmed from Heeger’s 2000 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the “discovery and development of conducting polymers.” He was awarded the prize alongside fellow scientists Alan MacDiarmid of the University of Pennsylvania and Hideki Shirakawa from the University of Tsukuba in Ibaraki, Japan. The trio disproved the long-running theory that plastics, unlike metals, do not conduct electricity.
Other collaborators from UCSB’s Center for Polymers and Organic Solids include Nelson E. Coates, Daniel Moses, Thuc-Quyen Nguyen and Mark Dante.