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Posted on March 06, 2009

Plastic solar cells for portable electronic devices

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Californian based Solarmer Energy Inc. is developing plastic solar cells for portable electronic devices that will incorporate technology invented at the University of Chicago.
 
The company is on track to complete a commercial-grade prototype later this year. The prototype cell measuring eight square inches (50 square centimeters), is expected to achieve 8 percent efficiency and to have a lifetime of at least three years.
 
"New materials with higher efficiencies are really the key in our industry. Plastic solar cells are behind traditional solar-cell technology in terms of the efficiency that it can produce right now," says Dina Lozofsky, vice president of IP development and strategic alliances at Solarmer. "Everyone in the industry is in the 5 percent to 6 percent range."
 
The invention, a new semiconducting material called PTB1, converts sunlight into electricity. Inventors Luping Yu, Professor in Chemistry, and Yongye Liang, a Ph.D. student, both at the University of Chicago, and five co-authors describe the technical details of the technology in an online article published Dec. 18, 2008, in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.
 
The active layer of PTB1 is a mere 100 nanometers thick, the width of approximately 1,000 atoms. Synthesizing even small amounts of the material is a time-consuming, multi-step process.
 
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An advantage of the Chicago technology is its simplicity. Several laboratories around the country have invented other polymers that have achieved efficiencies similar to those of Yu's polymers, but these require far more extensive engineering work to become a viable commercial product.
 
By combining Solarmer's device engineering expertise with Yu and Liang's semiconducting material, they have been able to push the material's efficiency even higher.
 
The first major applications for this technology will likely be portable digital electronic devices (such as phones, laptops) and outdoor lifestyle applications in 2011. Building Integrated Photovoltaic's (BIPVs), Smart Fabrics, and Smart-Networks\ESL will follow. By 2015, the combined revenues of these markets are expected to be over half of a billion dollars.
 
The University licensed the patent rights to the technology to Solarmer last September. The license covers several polymers under development in Yu's laboratory. A patent is pending.
 
 
References: University of Chicago and Solarmer Energy Inc.
 
Top image: Solarmer Energy Inc.